On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers played their first postseason game with their starting running back in five games, dating all the way back to Super Bowl XLV at the end of the 2010 season. third-year running back Rashard Mendenhall was the Steelers’ workhorse at the time, though he rushed for just 63 yards on 14 attempts in that game.
Against the Dolphins, the Steelers actually had the luxury of having Le’Veon Bell healthy. He had not been for the team’s three previous playoff games over the course of the past two years; in fact, it marked his postseason debut.
And he played like a man hungry for that opportunity, rushing for 167 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns. The 167 yards broke a 42-year-old franchise record for rushing yards in a playoff game, which was held by Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris.
The four postseason games between then and that Super Bowl have all featured backup running backs—even third-string running backs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have always delivered a poor performance. In light of Bell’s record-setting day and how much it meant for him to be healthy for the first time in three trips to the playoffs, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on that four-game period.
The ‘journey’, shall we say, started in the 2011 postseason, and actually began very promisingly, if I must say. Mendenhall had torn his ACL at the end of the regular season, and that thrust former undrafted free agent Isaac Redman into the starting lineup. He delivered with a 17-carry, 121-yard display that helped keep the offense afloat. But it wasn’t enough, as we know how that game ended.
The Steelers went through a period of missing the postseason for two years, returning at the end of the 2014 season. By then, Bell had already been established as an All-Pro, but a knee injury in the regular-season finale knocked him out for the playoffs.
You might recall that LeGarrette Blount was signed to spell Bell that year, and that things escalated to the point that he was released midseason. That resulted in the team starting yet another undrafted player in Josh Harris, playing basically his only meaningful game. He carried the ball nine times for 25 yards.
The Steelers also signed Ben Tate, but they didn’t really get him up and running in time. He had just five carries for 19 yards. He also dropped a pass and missed a blocking assignment that, if I recall correctly, helped contribute to an interception.
Last year, Bell tore his MCL midseason, so they had time to adjust—until DeAngelo Williams, his new backup, also went down in the regular-season finale. That thrust Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman into the limelight, neither of whom were on their 90-man roster.
The pair were actually impressive in the Wildcard victory over the Bengals, combining for 123 yards on 28 carries, and Toussaint also contributed 60 receiving yards on four receptions. The Divisional Round went, shall we say, less well.
Todman gained just six yards on five carries. Toussaint did add a rushing touchdown, but he was limited to 39 yards on 12 carries, and two yards on three receptions. He also had the late fourth-quarter fumble that many attribute directly to losing the season.
The Steelers’ recent postseason history is checkered with performances from backup running backs that have ranged from good to debilitating, but none of them are able to compare to having a player of Bell’s quality in the backfield. That’s why he was preserved in the regular-season finale and in the final minutes of the victory over the Dolphins. They remember what it’s like without him. And now you do too.