By Matthew Marczi
As the Pittsburgh Steelers get healthier and the games tick on, it appears that a pecking order is taking shape within the running back group. We all knew it was a foregone conclusion that rookie second-round draft pick Le’Veon Bell would assume the mantle once he returned to health, which did not come until the third game.
Now that he is settled into his role as the feature back, however, with three games under his belt, the rest of the stable is falling in line. And that includes the opening day starter featured on the bench as a game-day inactive, a role that does not show any signs of changing, barring injury.
The Steelers acquired former Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones in a trade during the preseason, and he performed well enough to initially make Jonathan Dwyer expendable. Of course, Dwyer was re-signed after LaRod Stephens-Howling suffered a torn ACL in the season opener.
Isaac Redman was the featured runner—before the running game was abandoned—in the opener. The following week, Redman suffered a head injury on the opening kickoff, which thrust Jones into the feature role. In the third week, it was Dwyer with the ‘hot’ hand after Jones fumbled the ball.
While blocking helped him rip off runs of nine and 25 yards, the other ten of his 12 carries went for four yards or less, with five of them going for zero or less yards.
The return of Bell in Week Four allowed for clarity to overtake the running back position. Redman went to the bench, Bell assumed the bulk of the carries, and Jones was used intermittently as a change of pace. Dwyer carried just two times for seven yards against the Minnesota Vikings.
After the Bye Week, it has become clear that Dwyer is carving out for himself the role of the occasional third down and short-yardage back. Twice in the past two weeks, Mike Tomlin sent in Dwyer in order to convert key third and short situations, and it would not be a surprise to see that continue, or even expand.
In this past game against the Baltimore Ravens, Dwyer’s only carry came on third and one, with the Steelers on their own 29-yard line right after the two-minute warning, looking to make something happen before the half, after which the Ravens would get the ball back. He converted easily with a powerful four-yard gain, although in the end a Heath Miller fumble translated into a late field goal for the Ravens afterward.
Dwyer is not simply in for short-yardage carries, however. For example, he was in on third and one during the Steelers’ first drive of the second half when Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for 19 yards and a first down. Not only did he make himself available to his quarterback for the first down, he went into blocking mode when he realized Roethlisberger was going to run for it and threw a block on safety Matt Elam down the field.