Steelers Under Mike Tomlin Do Prefer Carrying Four Running Backs

Yesterday, I wrote about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back position and its hypothetical long-term future—not much of which is known, of course, given that neither Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, or even Fitzgerald Toussaint are under contract for beyond the 2016 season. I wrote that, given the odd of Williams, at 34 in 2017, no longer being on the team, it would behoove the front office to consider carrying four running backs into this season.

Whether that comes through the retention of Jordan Todman as he is set to hit unrestricted free agency in a month or so or the investment in another opportunity, perhaps through the draft, as many thought that they might have done last year, having a solid option in-house as at least a number two back would not be a bad plan.

In doing this research, however, I stumbled upon the fact that it is not at all out of the ordinary for the Steelers to carry four running backs, and, in fact, it has actually been the norm rather than the exception in recent years, even if it may not have always felt as though that were the case.

Just last year, of course, the Steelers had four running backs after Bell’s suspension was over, with Bell and Williams at the top of the depth chart and Todman behind him, along with Dri Archer. Even when Bell was put on injured reserve, they initially replaced him with Isaiah Pead. Archer’s spot was not cleared until the Steelers acquired Jacoby Jones.

Oddly, in 2014, however, they did not take this approach, using Archer as the third running back on the depth chart in his rookie season. They did end up finishing the year with four running backs, but that was only because Bell got injured.

Flashing back to Mike Tomlin’s first season, the Steelers had Najeh Davenport, Gary Russell, and, of course, Willie Parker, just three running backs, but that would prove not to be the norm. Parker was later replaced by Justin Vincent due to injury. The following year, Tomlin drafted Rashard Mendenhall and signed Mewelde Moore in free agency. Russell made the 53-man roster to start as well, with Parker still remaining, of course. Russell spent 12 games on the roster in total, but Mendenhall got injured and was replaced by Davenport.

2009 was Davenport being let go as they pushed ahead with Mendenhall, Parker, and Moore, but they also added Stefon Logan from the CFL, who was brought in as a running back but ultimately became a hybrid WR/RB player in the vein of Archer, but was the primary kick  and punt returner instead. In 2010, even without Parker, the Steelers remained at four with Mendenhall and Moore, as Isaac Redman, after spending a year on the practice squad, made the 53-man roster, and they also drafted Jonathan Dwyer.

The Steelers kept that core—Mendenhall, Redman, Moore, and Dwyer—in 2011, but Mendenhall’s injury at the end of that season led to the beginning of the group’s derailment. In 2012, they hoped to get by while Mendenhall was injured with Dwyer and Redman, with Moore as the complementary back, as well as Chris Rainey, the rookie fifth-rounder, and Baron Batch, a late-round pick from two years earlier, carrying five backs in total, though Mendenhall and Batch finished the year on injured reserve. Batch still played about 100 snaps in 12 games.

The following year, Mendenhall, Rainey, and Batch would all be gone, and Redman would not be there much longer, but he was on the opening day roster, and for seven weeks—as was Bell, in his rookie season, along with Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling. After the latter’s torn ACL in the opener, he was replaced by Dwyer on the 53-man roster.

As you can see, carrying at least four running backs has actually been closer to the norm for the Steelers, even under Tomlin, with the only exceptions to those rules being the 2007 and 2014 seasons. In other words, the Steelers stand a fair chance to do more to address the position this offseason than just signing a bunch of futures players. Maybe that means Todman, maybe not.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Keeping four RB’s on the roster worked out well this past season. The job that those guys did when L Bell went down was phenomenal. If the Steelers take that same approach I hope the fourth RB is a returner/Speed back to compliment the rest of the group and no not a Rainey or Archer type. I’d like to see a guy with some size and speed.

  • PittsburghSports

    I know you want to push this idea of yours of having 4 RBs, but if you look deeper into it, I don’t think history is with you, and I did a little fact checking to back that up.

    In 2007 we only resigned Verron Haynes after Parker went on IR. Next year Russell and Davenport didn’t make the 53, but we resigned them both after Mendenhall went on IR. 2010 was really the 1st year they carried 4 RBs going into the season with Tomlin. I don’t remember the reason for that. Mewelde Moore was more of a blocking/receiving/3rd down back at that time and getting old, so maybe they had both Redman and Dwyer because of that and didn’t want to risk losing either young back. That lasted until Dwyer went on IR late in 2011, and then Mendenhall went on IR too after the last reg season game. That was Moore’s last year with us though. In 2012 we were one of the worst rushing teams in the league, and I can remember 1 game where each RB was benched after they fumbled and the frustration culminated in rushing 175 pound Rainey up the middle on the goal line. Redman, Dwyer, and Rainey were the main backs though, and I suppose Batch was there too, but he was on and off the team, Mendenhall went looney, even being suspended for not showing up to the game, so I don’t think Tomlin was very happy with his group that year, which explains why there were so many. 2013 was another horrible year rushing, and they did carry 4 to start the year, but remember Bell was injured the first 4 weeks, so it was really Redman, LSH and Jones to start the year. Dwyer was resigned when LSH went on IR, and when Bell came back they cut Redman. 2014 we really only had Bell and Blount to start the year, and if you consider Archer a RB then there was 3 RBs, but I don’t think you can consider Archer a RB in 2015, because they refused to put him on the field with the offense lol.

    The only time we really carried 4 RBs with Tomlin was with Moore, and I think Moore’s age had a lot to do with that. The rest happened because of injury, ineffectiveness(2012), or multi-position players like Rainey and Archer. I think 2016 will be much like the last 2 years, where we start the year with 2 very capable RBs, so there’s really no need for a 4th RB. The only way I see it happening is with an injury, or we get a guy that’s a return specialist/RB. I don’t really think Tomlin likes carrying 4 RBs or that it’s been the norm, and when he has good RBs at the top of his depth chart he’s comfortable carrying only 3 RBs, and he’s certainly never had 2 RBs like Bell and D Will at the top before.

  • PittsburghSports

    Archer wasn’t a RB, and really they went into the year with only D Will and Todman, because Bell was suspended.

  • Douglas Andrews

    The scatback experiment hasn’t worked out well with Pittsburgh. Now if they’re keeping 4 backs i’d like to see a guy like Todman. Speed/ decent size/ Return capable back. Todman is a FA and i’m sure he’ll look for a better opportunity next year.

  • PittsburghSports

    I hear ya, but if you’re talking about Rainey and Archer, I think they were brought in mostly for specialteams.

  • Applebite

    Jordan Howard is the next man they should aim for, if that is their intentions…

  • Matthew Marczi

    That was a mistake in 2007 on my part, not looking as far into it as I should have.

    As far as I can tell, Russell did make the 53-man roster in 2008. He was released on the 20th of September though to make a move for special teams purposes. So they opened 2008 with Parker, Mendenhall, Moore, and Russell. Russell spent 12 games active in 2008.

    Batch was on the 53-man roster for 12 games in 2012.

    Bell was injured for 3 games, and Redman was only released in late October because he was injured. It forced him into retirement.

    As far as Archer goes, I absolutely consider him a running back as much as a wide receiver. He only played two snaps on offense in 2015, but Haley and Tomlin both spoke of him as a running back in the offseason how it was necessary for him to carry the ball up the middle.

    So what I get is that the Steelers opened the regular season with 4 running backs in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015. That’s 6 out of 9 seasons.

    You cite Moore’s age as a reason they kept four for Moore, and injury in other years, but…Williams will be 33 and not under contract in 2017. Bell is coming off a knee injury and not under contract in 2017. Toussaint has hardly any experience. Why exactly would this be unfavorable circumstances to carry four running backs?

  • PittsburghSports

    Ahh yep didn’t see that. So yeah Russell made the roster in 2008 for 3 weeks and I’m sure there was time in between Bell being activated and Redman waived but that’s still the reason we had that many in the first place. I’m more looking at the season as a whole rather than opening day rosters, and I think there’s a plausible reason each time we carried 4 RBs. Basically, I don’t see those reasons this year. D Will is old but him and Bell are not Mendenhall and Moore. We’re much better off. Injuries aside.

  • PittsburghSports

    And no way was Archer a RB this past year. I don’t think it matters what words were spoken or what designation he had. He was our KR, and that’s it. If Archer was a RB, he wouldn’t have been cut 2 days after placing Bell on IR. I mean, you can say all those years we carried 4 RBs to start the year, but as a whole 2010 and 2011 are the only ones that hold any weight in my opinion. 2012 was an awful year for our ground game, and I think that’s exactly why we had so many RBs. That year is strictly an anomaly. Still, you add that year, and the other 2, and you have 3 out of 9 years we carried more than 3 RBs for an extensive amount of time, which I don’t see as the norm. Like I said before too, the biggest factor is when Tomlin has 2 good RBs at the top, like we do now, suspensions, injuries or any other factors aside, he’s comfortable with 3 RBs, and I believe he’s gone into a few games with only 2 RBs active.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Redman was on the roster for the first seven games. That’s 4 games with Bell on the roster. He was waived because of his injury. If he was healthy he would have stayed on the roster, and the injury forced him into retirement.

  • PittsburghSports

    However long he was on the roster, I think he was active in 3 or 4 games/barely played in 2, and was gone once Bell was good to go, regardless of reason. When we have injuries like that, we’re gonna carry extra RBs. We were expecting big things from Bell and LSH that year as a 1-2 combo, until the injuries. If you want to take that year to add to your total, go ahead. It’s still not going to make carrying 4 RBs the norm.

    If you really want to look at the most telling number I would look at it in a per game basis. I’m not going there myself lol, but how many games did we carry 4 or more RBs on the active roster in Tomlin’s 9 years? I’m willing to bet less than 50%. And you can’t count 2015 Archer.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Kick returner is not a meaningful position. His positions were running back and wide receiver and he returned kicks. Last year he played on offense after he was benched from returns…wouldn’t make sense to give your kick returner carries.

    You can argue this all you want, but you’re not going to get me to agree. Archer was on the roster until they acquired Jones. They signed Isaiah Pead to replace Bell. Archer would have stayed on the roster more likely than not had the opportunity to sign Jones not arisen. That was the plan going into the season, and that was four running backs.

    2013 was four running backs, which dipped to three after that lost not one, but two runningbacks. 2012 was four running backs, with Mendenhall on the roster for 15 games barring his suspension, Redman and Dwyer for 16 games, and Batch for 12 games. 2011 was Mendenhall, Moore, Redman, and Dwyer, and after Dwyer, Chad Spann, and John Clay. 2010 was Mendenhall, Moore, Redman, and Dwyer.

    2008 started out with four. Russell was cut after two games because of a special teams need, but he still played in 12 games. He scored in the Super Bowl. He was a meaningful part of the team, and not just a bonus roster spot. After Mendenhall’s injury, it was back to four with Parker, Russell, Moore, and Davenport. Davenport was on the roster for 8 games. Between all of the running backs, they accounted for 56 games, which works out to about 14 games. So for the vast majority of the 2008 season, they had four running backs.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Bullshit I can’t count Archer. If they needed running back snaps he would have played. You can’t just say “for whatever reason”. The reason was an injury. When you have four running backs that you like and you keep four running backs and one of your four running backs get injured and you don’t have another running back you like to replace him, that is a different scenario. The Steelers lost two running backs to injury that year and still carried four at least for almost half the season. They logged 55 running back games as a group that year.

  • PittsburghSports

    lol you said it yourself. Pead replaced Bell(RB). Jones replaced Archer(KR).

  • Matthew Marczi

    Jones (WR) replaced Archer (RB/WR).

    11/05/2015 Claimed WR Jacoby Jones; Released WR/RB Dri Archer

  • PittsburghSports

    lol here’s the official statement on the transaction. Notice which position is first…

    11/05/2015 Claimed WR Jacoby Jones; Released WR/RB Dri Archer

    Ok, so I’ll admit, I conceded much higher percentage than I thought was reality, but I looked at the transactions, and all the games, and I think I came up with an accurate number for games with 3 RBs on the roster vs games with 4 or more RBs on the roster in the regular season under Tomlin.

    2007(16-0), 2008(8-8), 2009(15-1), 2010(0-16), 2011(2-14), 2012(1-15), 2013(10-6), 2014(16-0), 2015(8-8).

    That’s a total of 76-68, or 52.8% of the time we’ve carried ONLY 3 RBs for regular season games under Tomlin. You can check it yourself, but I think that’s dead on. Just of note, I played nice and gave you credit for 8 games with Archer this past season, which I really don’t agree with. Still, I think it proves 4 or more RBs is not the norm. It’s basically 50/50 leaning my way, and without suspensions or injuries or players pretending to be RBs it would be a blow out lol.

    I also think you’re devaluing a return specialist as an actual position on the roster, because Tomlin has traded for Allen Rossum, signed Stefan Logan, drafted Chris Rainey and Dri Archer, and signed Jacoby Jones all specifically for the return game.

  • PittsburghSports

    I understand what you’re saying, but return specialist is a position more than a specialteams player is. You even see some draft sites have categories for returners. You don’t see categories for specialteams tacklers/players lol.

    You look up Stefan Logan and it says the Steelers signed him “to compete for a roster spot as a return specialist”. He was not a RB for us, and he never had a carry. He did however have 1 catch on 1 target. Most people had him listed with our WRs as a position.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Draft sites have the luxury of doing that because they know that some players are looked at primarily for their return abilities. But every returner has a primary defensive or offensive position (or positions). Whether or not he ever actually plays on offense or defense, he still attends the meetings and is part of the game planning.

    I read the stats too quickly, but Stefon Logan was indeed a *running back* for the Steelers, or a hybrid player. You can search the Steelers site for old articles. This is from an article back then, including what Tomlin said about him in the 2009 training camp:

    “He started out strictly as a running back with the Steelers, but as the offseason program continued he also began to work at wide receiver as well.

    “He’s one of the guys … we are kind of surprised by what he has been able to do as a wide receiver,” Tomlin said about Logan at the conclusion of OTAs in June. “He is running back capable – of course that’s his background – but he is not a fish out of water at wide receiver. He’s worked as a punt returner and a kickoff returner. Position flexibility is his ally, and we are going to help him with that.”

    The ellipsis is in the quote, and not mine, by the way.

  • Matthew Marczi

    The issue that I have with the raw numbers of games that included three or four running backs is that it ignores the team’s intent, and that impacts several seasons. Dwyer missed the last two games in 2011, and Mendenhall missed the last game in 2012, but they would have surely been on the roster had they not been placed on injured reserve. There is no compelling reason to believe that Redman would not have remained on the roster for the entire year in 2013 either–especially since his salary was fully guaranteed–if he were not injured. And Bell’s health was not in question after his first start, in which he scored two touchdowns on about 20 carries, if I recall correctly. His release was not pending confidence in Bell. It was pending assurance of the extent of his injury, which he suffered on the opening kickoff in the third game, if I recall correctly.

    But on that note, I have to bail on this conversation, on which I’m sure we’ll continue to agree to disagree, because, quite frankly, I have new articles I need to write for us to debate on.

  • PittsburghSports

    Yeah he was a RB in Canada, and when he left the Steelers he did some of that with Detroit, but in almost all depth charts he was a WR. That’s all pointless to me though, because he was a returner. That’s what the stats say, and that’s how he’s remembered.

  • PittsburghSports

    Well, numbers don’t tell any story 100%, just like saying 6 out of 9 years we carried 4 RBs. I will say, and I think we can both agree, that it’s more 50/50 than either of us had originally thought.

  • turtlefart1

    DJ Foster out of Arizona St is who I’m pimpin for this year’s draft. Maybe available with one of our 7ths? Receiving skills like David Johnson. Not a bruiser like Jordan Howard, but versatile enough he can keep the defense guessing. RB turned receiver this past year with questionable results and will probably revert back to RB.