Steelers 2013 Player Evaluations By Position – Running Backs

By Alex Kozora

A Pittsburgh Steelers player by player recap, grouped by position, reviewing the 2013 season. Today, a look at the Steelers’ backfield.

Le’Veon Bell: Oh what could have been. Had a foot injury not caused Bell to miss time in the preseason and the first three weeks of the year, he would have been a 1,000 yard rusher and had double-digit touchdowns. Perhaps the Steelers don’t start 4-4. Maybe they go 2-2. Maybe I’m doing playoff recaps instead of end of the year reviews.

On the surface, the 3.5 average doesn’t look pretty. But a lot of that was playing behind a line that was struggling to get the engine started. He finished the last five weeks with a lot of “fours”. Averaged over four yards per carry four times, and found the end zone the same number.

Bell’s positives were numerous. A workhorse back, the former Spartan averaged nearly 19 carries per game. A three down player who caught 45 passes and was trusted enough to be often used in pass protection. A tough runner capable of lowering his shoulders and gaining extra yards. A surprising athlete with quick feet and the occasional “did that just happen” hurdle. His signature run of the year came on a 25 yard run topped with a hurdle against the Green Bay Packers.

I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t a fan of Bell after the draft. He didn’t appear to have good vision as a back and too frequently bounced runs to the outside. But I’ll eat crow as Bell rarely missed holes and routinely planted to get upfield and run downhill.

He also shows the ability to press a hole to get the linebacker to committ and then cutback. Prime example against the Baltimore Ravens, making veteran Daryl Smith (#51) look silly.

Although he was often used in pass protection as noted above, there is still to be work to be done in that area. Needs to consistently square up his defender instead of cutting or leading with his shoulder as he did in these two instances, the former coming in Week 17.

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Other issues included drops (6th in league drop percentage for running backs with 20+ targets) though at times, the team seemed to force feed Bell the ball. Never understood the team’s infatuation with using him on wheel routes that rarely connected. Bell also lacks home run speed with the numbers backing it up. He only had one run over 25 yards. Of course, it is not a major issue nor a requirement.

By the end, he was an obvious choice for the team’ rookie of the year. And an obvious choice as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ next feature back.

Felix Jones: Acquired in a training camp deal for Adrian Robinson, Jones finished the season with 184 yards rushing and caught nine passes for 63 yards. Most thought his career was all but finished after the run-heavy Chip Kelly didn’t want him but the former first round pick carved out a niche with the team as a return man, averaging 22 yards per kick return.

In the second half of the year, he rarely saw the ball aside from getting work in the team’s two minute offense at the end of the half. He occasionally flashed a burst but his runs were more a product of big running lanes opened up because of the formation and not ability.

Jones will hit free agency and it seems unlikely he will be retained.

Jonathan Dwyer: What a maddingly frustrating player. Failing to take advantage of his opportunity in 2012, Dwyer rumbled to just 623 yards in 13 games, finding the end zone twice. Habitually struggling with his weight, it wasn’t even a certainty Dwyer would break camp with the team. After injuries to Bell and LaRod Stephens-Howling, Dwyer made the squad and carved out a role as a short-yardage back.

An area he did excel in. And to his credit, Dwyer ran hard in 2013. He flashed the talent he’s had since coming out of Georgia Tech. He logged time on special teams, serving as the upback for most kick returns, playing on the punt return team, and seeing some time running down kicks.

Unfortunately, this appears to be his ceiling. He’ll never be a feature back. His vision is still among the worst around and at this point, does not seem to be correctable. He showed it in the preseason against the Washington Redskins

all the way to Week 17, bouncing this run instead of hitting the “B” gap.

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And each offseason, you hold your breath and hope he shows up motivated and in shape. Had Howling and Bell not gotten hurt, I strongly believe he would not be with the team.

Dwyer is a free agent but could be brought back on a small deal because he does have a role and gives you special teams ability. Should that happen, he will not be guaranteed a spot and will face competition in camp.

Will Johnson: He was utilized less than what he probably should have been. With the Steelers passing as much as they did and the strong play from Jerricho Cotchery, the team operated out of 11 personnel most of the time, leaving few snaps for a fullback. His touches nearly dropped in half from 15 in 2012 to 8 this past year.

Still a useful bit player, he’s a solid blocker and though an afterthought out of the backfield, came up with some big catches (go ahead TD vs Detroit, 4th down conversion against Green Bay). Boot action into the flats (often a spot route with curl/corner combination) is a “go to” for Todd Haley in crucial situations.

Johnson’s contributions mostly stem from his special teams work, usually running as R2 on kickoffs and seeing time on punt returns. He is the new age fullback. A big man that can move.

He is signed for 570K in 2014 and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2015.

LaRod Stephens-Howling: Hyphen tore his ACL in Week 1, spending the rest of the year on injured reserve. Still just 27 by the time next season begins and a player that never had a heavy workload, he should be able to come back.

A scat back that is capable of wearing many hats, it would not be surprising to see the team offer him a cheap deal in the offseason. The Steelers don’t want to head into the draft with just one running back on the roster.

Alvester Alexander: Alexander spent the season on the practice squad and received a futures contract from the team. He’ll try to earn his way back on the practice squad in 2014.

Next Up: Wide Receivers

Senior in college, blogging from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • Shea Fahr

    I would like to see LSH back…. Bell, Dwyer, LSH, Johnson and a rookie burner that can return on STs.

  • Jollyrob68

    I like Dwyer and want him Back. LSH can come to camp and compete with Rookie draft picks & Undrafted RB.

  • Dan

    Agree. Maybe not the most talented guy in the world, but seems like he always runs hard. Like many backs it seems he needs a lot of carries to get in a rhythm, and he’ll never get that as a back up, but until a better backup shows up I’d like to see him with us.

  • steeltown

    Hopefully they re-sign Dwyer now that he is contributing on special teams, he is cheap and a capable #2 and short yardage guy. Also would hope they bring back LSH he was running pretty good prior to getting hurt and could take over kickoff return duty as well, he also should be pretty cheap coming off of major injury. Add a late Rd pick, a UDFA or two to the mix and the RB stable could be looking pretty good entering training camp.

    Retaining Dwyer and LSH would remove the need to spend a early-mid draft pick at the RB position

  • Christopher Rudisill

    Hey, Depot,
    The best offseason/preseason you guys made was to bring in Alex Kozora. I love this man’s analyses. I look forward to more stuff from Alex as time goes on!

  • Ken

    Relief! no more wondering will Dwyer or Redman step up this year. woohoo. We have an actual NFL Starting running back on the roster. Dwyer and LSH are quality backups.

  • David Edward

    Yes, Bell delivered as promised by Tomlin. He’ll provide great cap value over these next 3 years under his rookie contract. Will be interesting to see what happens after that. I think Dwyer fits nicely into his niche of short-yardage back. As mentioned, he’s not good at reading and setting up his blocks, but when he just needs to run straight and downhill, he gets it done. I think they’ll offer him a modest 2 year deal to return.

    Felix filled the KR/speed back role, but didn’t bring much speed. Agree that they will look elsewhere to fill that role in ’14. LSH looked good in camp, but you have to wonder how coming off injury will effect his speed/cutting. He may be offered a deal to return if he looks back to norm, but it certainly doesn’t need to be a priority. They can wait to see what they might be able to get in the draft in the later rounds.

    Will Johnson should have been used more. I wouldn’t mind seeing more I formations with him as a lead blocker. Then, he can head out for passes both short and deep as well as a quick hitter carry up the gut. From that formation, they can do some nice things with the play-action-pass.

  • Shea Fahr

    Dave should lock him up before he becomes a UFA…

  • joed32

    LSH is better than Felix.

  • Virdin Barzey

    I like LSH better than Dwyer. I once believed that Dwyer could be the starter if given time but as was stated, he is what he is and that’s clearly not a starter. Short yardage seems about right but his lack of vision is soooo poor that I’m not so sure how successful he is at that.

    Overall,we need to keep Bell healthy and those guys can give him relief from time to time. If we can find an Alfred Morris type later in the draft, that would be ideal. Probably not likely since we have soooo many needs on defense.

  • RW

    If we get creative with the salary cap, as you suggest, a great option in FA is Dexter McCluster. Bring him in and get him in on return duties. You can get him out in the slot and in pass-catching situations out of the backfield. Would get A. Brown out of dangerous punt-returning duties and we’d have the scat back we’re looking for.

  • treeher

    Hey Alex, how about an article on the performance of the guys let go by the team this year and picked up by others? Would be interesting to see if any succeeded elsewhere.

  • DarthVenamis

    Poor grades to the coaching staff regarding evaluating this unit. Keeping Redman over Dwyer out of the preseason was such an obvious mistake and failure in talent evaluation. I still think there has to have been more to that decision than ability on the field because it has been obvious for a while that while Dwyer isn’t a top flight back, he is much better than Redman.

  • srdan

    I have my own theory on this. Dwyer may be a better short yardage back and do some other things better, but redman was a better “lead back” (term used loosely). I guess redman was a jack of all trades, master of none. While Dwyer has a role.

    But I could be completely off.

  • srdan

    He is a good player.

    I don’t quite understand the need for a “change of pace back”. Is it to make opposing teams spend time preparing for another guy? Because I don’t care who you bring not named McCoy, Charles or Peterson, I would want Bell in the game on third down.

  • srdan

    I never understood why this team would give Bell 12 rushes in teh first half, and 7 in the second. It seemed like we went away from what worked at times. I made the 12/7 number up, but that is how it seemed to me. I would like to see it 12/12 next year.

  • RW

    My thought with him is not so much the “change of pace back” aspect as it is his dual threat ability to both run and catch out of the backfield. You might think that that role is easy to handle, but it’s difficult to be both a competent runner with patience and vision and an extraordinary pass catcher. I think Bell is great in the pass catching role and I agree with you that he should be in on third downs. I would just say that McCluster would add wrinkles to the offense as a slot receiver or an RB2 when the team runs with 2RB in the backfield on 3rd down. There is the element of having to prepare for this type of hybrid player, but my sense is that he would provide a big boost in the kick return game, keep AB fresh and give us experienced, quality RB and WR depth. He locks up virtually 4 positions, which could free up a roster spot for more DL/OL on game days.

  • srdan

    Great points. Especially the last one that he could man 4 positions. Flexibility is great on today’s rosters where you need specialists at other positions.

  • RW

    Plus, we seem to always be short linemen on game days…

  • srdan

    lol. Couldn’t have said it better. Plus someone like this would allow you to carry a plaxico burress for 7-10 redzone plays a game.

  • SumnerYoung

    Very much agree with your point on Dwyer over Redman out of training camp. Also, IMO another mistake was made by the coaching staff regarding the running backs in camp. Lev Bell had hurt his knee early in camp, but they still pushed for him to start the second preseason game even though that knee wasn’t 100% . Guess what? Bell injured his foot while playing a meaningless preseason game on a knee that wasn’t ready. Subsequently, he missed the first three games of the regular season. Maybe the Steelers win one of those games if he is available, and are still in the playoffs.

  • SumnerYoung

    I don’t care if it’s a “change of pace” back, but I think we should add another “good back.” Running backs take a ton of punishment throughout the course of a season. If we are expecting to give Bell 250-300 carries, and 50 catches, I think that’s great. But remember, running backs are often injured. A good Plan B is needed. But then again, maybe that is a luxury with so many holes on defense.

  • SumnerYoung

    I love this idea. Especially, since McCluster already has familiarity with Haley and the offensive system. I’m pretty sure Haley was the HC at KC when they drafted McCluster. Wonder what the market is for a guy like that?

  • RW

    I don’t know if it really is a luxury. I think it would allow the team to shift its focus to defense in the draft, rather than worrying about fringe elements of the offense like a backup RB or slot WR. Of course there is still a need to add another red zone threat at the WR/TE position, but at least the steelers could part ways with Sanders knowing that they have a viable alternative and only have to worry about one offensive position heading into the draft. To me, it makes all sorts of sense. The only other FA I’d bring in (though he’s likely to be resigned before we could even reach out) is Wesley Woodyard at ILB. He’d give a ton of stability to the middle of the defense and would allow us to focus on our weakest links – safety, CB, OLB and D-line depth.

  • srdan

    Interesting question. I think it is obvious that he wouldn’t get interest at being a lead back, or a 2nd receiver. A third receiver maybe, and a 3rd down back. The league finally quite overpaying kick returners (hester and cribbs). My guess is that he is in the same market as LSH was this past offseason, but McC is better. But he shouldn’t be far out of that neighborhood.

    KC may not really need him since they just used a 3rd rounder for Niles Davis.

    What did LSH get?

  • cencalsteeler

    Heres what I would do if I was in Tomlins shoes – Bring Dwyer in and conduct a mini combine for him. Chart his strength, weight and measurements and hang the results on the wall behind his desk. Tell him the third and short job his his to lose if he adds strength and bulks up ten pounds or so without adding to his waist line. If he succeeds, you have Bell, Dwyer and bring someone in through the draft who brings a change of pace, but, not a Rainey type. Someone more of a Sproles or a Ray Rice type. Not a fan of those little speedy guys, too fragile IMO. I’d invite LSH back to camp to give him a shot, but, honestly am not a big fan of regurgitating players from other teams.

  • cencalsteeler

    I have a better idea. How about an evaluation of missed tackles by the secondary and how it affected the outcome of a game. My guess is 99% of the explosive plays could have been avoided if there was not a missed tackle. I see a lot of attention put towards the front seven of the defense. But, IMO, the secondary is our weak link. They have seemed to all caught on to the putting your head down and lunging tackling technique, which any good running back would welcome any day. Lake HAS to see this and we need to correct this if our defense is going to want to get better.

  • RedCarpetDefense

    Can Will Johnson play OLB?

  • Robert Alaniz

    Dwyer might have “bad ” vision but again, wound up being the only back on the team with over a 4.0 ypc.

    I think they bring him back and he continues to be the number two.

  • Robert Alaniz

    Dwyer ripped off the longer runs. I don’t agree Redman was better at anything to be honest and I think he has played his last game in the league.

  • srdan

    This is a great idea and seeing some of Tomlins motovation methods over the last few years, I wouldn’t put it past him. That would be awesome.

  • treeher

    Yes, but … secondary technique does not disintegrate overnight. In the past, their tackling has been a strength. Everyone keeps dismissing the impact of losing Foote early on and I think this had a huge impact, both in signal calling, leadership, and holding the middle. Troy played linebacker for much of the season, and a 210 pound guy ain’t gonna get the job done. Everyone was trying to do too much instead of focusing on their own responsibilities. As a result, they got out of position and the tackling became more difficult. Clark, Troy, and Ike also have lost about 1/2 step or so and that caused some of the out of position plays.

  • srdan

    I agree with you after this season. At the end of last, you were hte only one that would have had such a strong point of view that Dwyer is thaaaat much better than Redman..

    In a way, can we say that the coaching staff really motivated Dwyer by releasing him? Therefore give them credit. lol

  • Callentown

    As I see it, we have Bell and Will Johnson. The others could leave as far as I’m concerned. I doubt LSH will be back, but we’ll probably keep Dwyer.

    When I look around the league, I see better #2’s on a lot of teams than Dwyer, however, so I do hope we look to find someone better at some point.

  • Callentown

    Did you ever see Dave Meggett play for the Giants back in the day? He was one of the first 3rd down backs that really made a difference.

    That’s the point.

  • Callentown

    (Posted on the wrong spot, sorry)

    Did you ever see Dave Meggett play for the Giants back in the day? He was one of the first 3rd down backs that really made a difference.

    That’s the point.

  • srdan

    yeah, parcels loved that guy. And I dont think Parcels likes his own son. lol

    My question was how does a speedy back help the offense? Is it by introducing another wrinkle for the defense to have to prep for. Or does the speed make defesnses play differently? Of course my assumption is that a 3rd down back should be fast.

    To me having a skilled guy on the field who knows how to operate in space is more beneficial than a fast guy. I would take Lagerret Blunt in space vs a corner over chris rainey. (simple terms). Therefore, how can we justify pulling Bell off the field besides giving him a breather or preserving him?

    I guess what I am trying to point out is that we don’t necessarily need a burner, we need someone who is very skilled to spell Bell.

    As teh thread starter stated, I think McCluster fits that hand like a glove. (To keep it with the 90s RB references, hehe)

  • Callentown

    Ha nice!

    Yeah, to me it’s like having another tool in the box. We definitely need someone to come in and spell Bell.

    But it’s nice to have someone dynamic, as you said with speed, and quickness – especially late in the game.

    I saw in interesting stat in the Philly game concerning McCoy. His avg yards per carry starts at 4.0 yards a carry in the 1st quarter, but by the 4th, he’s up to over 6 yards a carry as the defense tires.

    Peace brotha!

  • Bill Molinaro

    Excellent review & analysis of 2013 RBs. It’s true Bell doesn’t possess breakaway speed but it would help if he could learn the old give him a leg and take it away move when he breaks open. Couldn’t agree more on Dwyer; has load of talent but has no idea where to run. Don’t know about the Pitt scat back but I do know we definitely need another good back.

  • joed32

    At the time everyone was dumping on Dwyer for being overweight and out of shape and tapping out every time he had a couple of carries. That’s the reason he was cut and not because of lack of talent but because of lack of commitment. After being out in the street for a while he came back and took the job seriously. Let’s see if that carries over or he comes to camp out of shape again.

  • Mike Popovich

    Lets be fair here, Dwyers 13 games consisted of only 156 carries, almost 100 less than Bell, and of those 13 games only started 4. The last 6 games of 2012 consisted of Dwyer, Redman, Mendenhall, and Rainey all splitting 16 carries or less a game. I don’t think its enough of a sample size to base an accurate assessment.

  • http://pittsburghsportsinat.blogspot.com/ bgsteelfan

    I did something like that around mid season and compared them to their replacements with us. At the time, we came out ahead.