There were few positions for the Pittsburgh Steelers that were more debated than the running back spot this offseason.
Should the Steelers draft a back early? Do they need to sign a veteran? Can Isaac Redman carry the load? Will Rashard Mendenhall be ready to contribute before the season is over?
Some of those questions have been answered already.
The Steelers did not sign a running back in free agency, and they drafted Chris Rainey, a role-playing running back, in the fifth-round.
Without any further additions, it is clear that the Steelers and offensive coordinator Todd Haley are confident with the stable of running backs on the roster. Haley said the following via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"We have a good, diverse group. You kind of have all the parts you like as a coordinator. You have big backs who can run it hard up the middle. You have some quicker, faster backs who can play outside for you. I'm excited about the group in general."
What does this diverse group look like? Well, it starts with Isaac Redman, the power back of the group who is prepared to carry the offense if necessary.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette reported the following:
Redman said he is "getting ready to carry this load if that's what they want me to do ... Just trying to make sure I'm in tip-top shape to be called on 20-25 times a game, which I know I can handle."
Redman is entering his fourth season and has improved each year.
In 2010, Redman carried the ball 52 times for 247 yards and caught nine passes, including the game-winner in an instrumental game against the Baltimore Ravens.
He was even better last season, rushing for 479 yards on 110 carries with three touchdowns, adding 18 receptions for 78 yards.
Redman also proved he could handle a significant number of carries with 19 rushes for 92 yards in the regular season finale against the Cleveland Browns. However, he did have two fumbles.
Those problems were corrected the following week when he started the playoffs against the Denver Broncos. Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries. If the Steelers wouldn't have fallen behind, his numbers would have been even better.
Whether or not Redman can sustain this type of production across the entire season remains to be seen, but he should be the workhorse come training camp.
With his powerful running style, Redman should look particularly good running behind the improved offensive line. A healthy Maurkice Pouncey, first-round draft pick David DeCastro and shifting Willie Colon to guard will really improve the strength of the interior of Pittsburgh’s line.
Will Haley use the strength of Redman’s style and the upgraded power and athleticism on the interior of the line to focus on an inside running attack? It seems like the logical approach and would really reinforce the concept that the Steelers want to be a more effective running team, particularly in short-yardage and red-zone situations.
Behind Redman are a variety of backs with a wide range of skills, but the favorite to be the backup is Jonathan Dwyer.
A former top prospect, Dwyer fell to the Steelers in the sixth round of the 2010 draft due to conditioning issues.
After a couple of seasons of showing up to camp overweight and buried deep on the depth chart, he has finally woken up and is taking his job seriously.
"'I am pretty sure he has gotten it now,'" Redman told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. "'I feel a light bulb went off in his head, and he is going to come to camp ready to go.'"
Dwyer is joining teammates Antonio Brown and Lawrence Timmons, as well as elite running backs Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy, in training at Performance Systems in Florida.
“I am just realizing how much it takes to get where you are in this league and how hard you have to work and push yourself,” Dwyer said. “This is my year to prove something to myself, the league, to the organization, that I am worth more than what I was.”
Dwyer started workouts this week and will remain in Florida until the day before camp.
“I know if I come in at the weight I am supposed to be, I will be OK,” Dwyer said. “It is not anybody else’s responsibility to come into camp in shape. It is mine.”
Last season, Dwyer began to show why the Steelers took a shot on him late in the draft after he ran for 107 yards against the Tennessee Titans, including a 76-yard run.
Dwyer has the type of skills that the Steelers need in a backup. He can run to all parts of the field and has the hands to make receptions out of the backfield.
Training camp will be an opportunity for him to showcase his efforts of getting in shape. He will need to demonstrate that he has the speed and endurance to carry the ball five to 10 times per game and be effective.
Dwyer will also have an opportunity to compete for the role of short-yardage back. He will have a difficult time overcoming Redman, but could be a threat given his size.
Given his hands, Dwyer could also compete for the third-down back, as long as he can show he can block. Focus on his abilities on the backs-on-backers, specifically how physical he is blocking, and see how this translates to game situations.
Speaking of backs-on-backers, Baron Batch was the start of this drill last year after making one amazing block on James Harrison.
After this one block, Batch became a camp sensation and a bit of a folk hero for fans, thus the high expectations from some. However, an injury to his ACL in camp ended his season before it even started.
Batch’s recovery is on schedule and he will be ready to perform in camp, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"I've always said this: I'm a football player first before a running back," Batch said. "If I have to play special teams, I'll do that. I think that's something I can really contribute to with my skill set. With the offense, it will be whatever they feel comfortable letting me do and whatever I earn. Whatever happens, I'll be confident with what I'm doing."
He will have to play special teams and will challenge for the third-down back job.
Batch has the speed and hands necessary to be a weapon out of the backfield as a third-down back, but has to improve on his blocking. The one block from last year stands out, but it was only one block in a drill. It did not always translate in 11-on-11 drills.
But without Mewelde Moore on the roster this year, Batch will have a strong chance at earning this job and if he does, he will be a significant part of the Steelers' offense—assuming his knee is fully recovered.
Challenging Batch will be the electric fifth-round draft choice from Florida, Chris Rainey, though he may not be a direct challenger, as he can do just about anything you ask of him.
"'I can play running back, I can play slot, I can do special teams,''" Rainey told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following the draft. "'I'm a playmaker all around. I'm perfect for this offense.'"
The Steelers gave Rainey plenty of opportunities in offseason practices, and in just a few weeks the fans will get a chance to see how he is being used.
Of greatest interest should be where Rainey lines up and how they get the ball in his hands. Will he be in the backfield by himself, or will they put him back there with a player more adept at blocking? Will they motion him out into the slot? Is Rainey more likely to get handoffs or passes going his way?
Rainey has a chance to be an X-factor for this offense given his versatility. He may only get three to five touches a game, but he can make big things happen every time he possesses the ball.
Rainey just may be the most intriguing player to watch in training camp.
While the previous players are likely to make the roster, John Clay will be on the roster bubble.
Clay is a big back who is a straight-line runner, but has an overall limited skill set. The Steelers' offense should still be high-flying, and with Redman and Dwyer as the potential top two backs and Rainey and Batch as the passing down backs, is there a spot for Clay?
If any player has to make the most of his opportunities in the preseason games, it will be Clay.
The Steelers will also employ a fullback this year, with David Johnson officially being moved to the position.
"That's going to help develop him," Redman said, "now that he's in our meeting rooms and being able to see what type of blocks that we have, and what type of blocks that we want from him. Instead of him being a tight end in the tight-end room and kind of doing fullback as a second job, he's strictly focusing on fullback. I think that will help him a lot."
Meeting with the running backs should help Johnson understand the game from a running back's point of view as opposed to a tight end playing fullback. This should specifically help with his blocking, which is not particularly one of Johnson’s strengths.
But he will not be the only fullback in camp. The Steelers signed a very athletic Will Johnson who will also compete for the position. May the best blocker win.
Of course, there is one back who has not been mentioned yet, and that is Rashard Mendenhall.
Per NFL.com, Mendenhall will likely start the season on the PUP list as he continues to recover from his ACL injury. That means he will not be available until Week 6 of the regular season.
That does not mean Mendenhall won’t be at camp. He will likely find himself on the sidelines doing some light workouts, as players recovering from major injuries have done in the past.
It will be an opportunity for everyone to see how Mendenhall is moving around as he looks to get ready to return at some point this season.
So while Redman will be the clear-cut starter while Mendenhall is out, there is no shortage of intrigue in how the Steelers will use their running backs this season. It will be one of the most interesting positions to watch in training camp.
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