Steelers Starting Running Back Battle Will Be Fun To Watch
By Matthew Marczi
Of the five new starters—or starters in new positions, as is the case for Marcus Gilbert—that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be bringing to the offensive huddle in Week 1 of the 2013 season, we have already covered four. However, those positions are already all but resolved; the final position legitimately appears to be up for grabs.
Although Isaac Redman was technically the opening day starter at running back for the Steelers a year ago, he was only starting due to the injury that Rashard Mendenhall suffered near the end of the previous season. Despite what Mendenhall has said in the past and how his 2012 season went, both on and off the field, and despite the circumstances that led to him leaving the team in free agency, there is really little doubt that Mendenhall would have been the feature back had he not gotten seriously injured.
Thus, even if Redman should win the starting job in the preseason, he should still be considered a new starter. However, one must assume, and fairly, that the featured role will be temporary, and perhaps fleeting.
That could be due to head coach Mike Tomlin utilizing a short leash, as he did a season ago, with the running backs, which could have Redman quickly replaced by Jonathan Dwyer. But, of course, the primary reason for either Redman’s or Dwyer’s temporary status as starter is the selection of Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the past draft.
To state it simply, it may not yet be the case that the starting spot is Bell’s to lose, but it almost certainly is his to win. When considering the litany of scathing public comments from both Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert about the quality of the running backs from a year ago, one might be inclined to assume that they are hoping that Bell will grab the reins and not let go.
After all, it is much easier for a rookie to not only play, but to win a starting job, as a rookie on offense in Pittsburgh than it is on defense. Heath Miller was able to do that back in 2005. Maurkice Pouncey accomplished the feat in 2010. David DeCastro last year was essentially deemed the starter over Ramon Foster before a knee injury nearly derailed his entire season.
Of course, both Ben Roethlisberger and Gilbert logged significant starts as rookies, though both were due to injury. Santonio Holmes logged quite a bit of snaps in his rookie year, and started the last four games, in addition. Mike Adams would have likely had 11 starts as a rookie if he did not get injured after six; he was replaced by another rookie, Kelvin Beachum, who started the remaining five games of the year.
Given all of the early starting experience on offense over the past decade, then, and given the departure of a starter at the position, it is reasonable to believe that Le’Veon Bell has every chance in the world to start as early as the first game of the season. But in order to do so, he will need to prove himself during the preseason and win the job.
According to Jim Wexell’s reports for Steel City Insider, Bell is currently second on the depth chart with the conclusion of spring OTAs and the minicamp, behind Redman. Given the premature nature of such depth charts, it says more about the back end of the depth chart than it does the front end.
Dwyer was listed as the first team running back to start OTAs simply because he was the starter to finish off the season. However, reports on his spring have been mixed, from continued suggestions that he is worryingly overweight during the offseason to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Dejan Kovacevic repeatedly declaring Dwyer as his early choice to open the season in the back field rather than on the bench.
Given his position as third on the depth chart, right now that does not appear too likely. However, there is a long time between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp, and that perceived demotion should be all of the motivation that Dwyer needs to push himself, if that was not, in fact, the intention behind the ranking all along.
Redman, of course, was the first to be turned to as the starter last year, as mentioned previously, and, to be fair, the experiment more or less failed. However, it would not be entirely fair to view his starting capability based on those early season troubles. After all, he was dealing with multiple injuries at the time, and the offense was transitioning into a new offense that was clearly experiencing growing pains in terms of finding the running plays that it was comfortable running.
Indeed, he turned in perhaps the best performance by a back over the last couple of seasons for the Steelers when he ran all over the New York Giants’ defense during a Week 9 victory, rushing for 147 yards on 26 carries at a healthy clip of 5.7 yards per carry, adding a touchdown to the mix. He also showed his potential as a pass catcher in Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans when he took four passes 105 yards. In total, he caught 19 passes on the year for 244 yards.
As for Bell, much of what he has to offer has not been witnessed by most. We will have to wait until training camp starts for reports, and then for the preseason games to see him with our own eyes. But there seems to be little question that he is well within the mix. If he can show an aptitude for pass protection, he can win the starting job. Even if he does not excel in that area, however, he is certain to get plenty of snaps this year.
Most important of all with the drafting of Bell and the subsequent competition among the backs is the fact that they appear to be more motivated than ever, knowing that their opportunities are slipping away. Redman has lost weight from a year ago to help him adapt to a zone blocking scheme, and has worked on his receiving skills. Dwyer is training as we speak down in Florida in preparation for training camp. As a rookie, Bell has every reason in the world to be motivated—and having Steven Jackson compare you to himself doesn’t hurt either. This may be the only starting spot that appears to be legitimately up for grabs, but it should be a fun battle to watch.