The Pittsburgh Steelers have been rampaged by the injury bug in recent seasons, and the start of 2012 exhibition play hasn't given Steelers Country any reason for a renewed optimism regarding players' health. Included on the laundry list of the maimed have been a quartet of running backs, dating to Rashard Mendenhall's devastating knee injury in the 2011 regular-season finale.
With "Mendy" on the mend, the Steelers recently took him off of the "PUP" (physically unable to perform) list, but the running corps has since balanced that good news with new disconcerting injuries, leaving many to wonder how the team should view its depth chart and approach the run game going forward.
Isaac Redman is nursing a groin injury, firecracker back Chris Rainey has been seen in physical disarray more than once, and John Clay, already considered on the outside looking in prior to the start of camp, was placed on injured waivers.
With Clay out of the mix, in addition to Redman not suiting up for Sunday night's game against the Colts, the Steelers brought in running back Jason Ford essentially out of necessity. An old saying states that "necessity is the mother of invention."
Instead, it was the father of intention on Sunday night, and the intention of Jason Ford was to show the world that he was much more than just roster fodder; he's a viable consideration for the final 53-man roster. Regarded as a "filler" by many before the prime-time contest, NFL fans nationwide got to see the thick Bettis-bodied back take full advantage of his opportunity, even more impressive considering that the offensive line has yet to truly congeal in the preseason.
His yards after contact opened many eyes across Steeler Nation, and his ability to brutishly mow through the Indianapolis defense, albeit the reserves, makes Ford an immediate X-factor in the team's future plans at the position. Truly, he couldn't have picked a better night to pop off 42 yards on eight rushing attempts without turning the football over, all while bullying would-be tacklers along the way.
Who should be the Steelers' opening day starter at running back, safely assuming Rashard Mendenhall is unable to return?
After all, his speedy first-year peers spent their night fumbling the football (Chris Rainey) and demonstrating a complete inability to create yardage, even when circumstances aren't entirely fruitful (Baron Batch). Rainey fumbled on his first possession of the night, and Batch averaged a mere 2.4 yards per rush attempt. While many would blame the subpar play to date of the offensive line, which has been inconsistent at best with run blocking, the fact is that Batch has had opportunities to run behind comparable blocking to his peers, simply making far less of the opportunity.
Batch's speed makes him intriguing, but being able to manufacture yardage is entirely different from being able to blaze through perfect blocking. Whereas Rainey, despite his subpar evening on both offense and special teams against the Colts, has shown flashes of ingenuity in the running and return games, Batch is proving to be the post-broken leg version of Willie Parker, at least in game action to-date.
Toward the end of Parker's career, the Steel City favorite had far more difficulty creating yardage in tight spots than in the past, understandably, considering the circumstances. If his speed is merely reserved for ideal circumstances, is there any guarantee that Batch will experience such situations with enough frequency to truly make a difference? Speed means nothing without opportunity, and sometimes opportunity must—at least in part—be self-created.
Batch is a fan favorite, and many loyal supporters won't want to support this notion, but short of a substantial improvement in the coming two weeks, Baron may not make the roster against the expectations of many heading into training camp. While his peers are flourishing, or at least giving the team brass reasons to believe, Batch's showings are only giving everyone reason to question his long-term status in Black and Gold.
Today's NFL running game is used to keep the defense honest above all else, facilitating the passing game and, with any luck, working effectively to pick up first downs, thus maintaining drives and/or killing the clock at game's end.
3rd-and-2 for the win? On a couple of occasions, the Steelers have failed in that scenario in recent seasons. As such, give me a hard-hitting back with the ability to shed tacklers over a speed demon any day of the week, particularly Sunday!
Many of you are questioning, "With just one game under his belt, can we make such brash conclusions so quickly?" To which, I reply, "No. But, let's watch carefully."
After all, where his peers have failed, particularly Baron Batch, Ford immediately succeeded.
That leads us into the first consideration:
I predict the trends above will continue to showcase themselves in the final two preseason games. If so, I believe the team should strongly consider releasing Batch, keeping Redman, Rainey and Ford—at least until Mendenhall returns and shows his ability post-recovery.
The assumed starter headed into the 2012 season is Isaac Redman, a running back who truly dazzled fans with a demonstrative display of power and finesse in back-to-back efforts to end last season. Against both the Browns and Broncos, the halfback averaged over eight yards per attempt.
Fast-forwarding to the preseason, it is Jonathan Dwyer who is doing most of the impressing in training camp. To watch him live at St. Vincent College this season is to experience an entirely new player, liberated from the half-hearted condition in which he had arrived to training camp up until this season.
With a little coaxing from Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, Dwyer showed up to camp in the shape of his life this season. Last February, Colbert told SiriusXM NFL Radio:
“He's a big guy, and you know sometimes he's a little too big quite honestly. He has to keep his weight in check, but he's 245 to 255, and he can run.”
Put simply, Jonathan showed up to training camp in the best shape of his life. His production is on par with (or superior to) that of each of his running peers. The suddenly fit and focused Dwyer has demonstratively made his case this preseason, clearly the most impressive runner thus far. His 10 carries for 83 yards are a testament to hard work and skill, a combination that fares well for his expanded role with the team in 2012.
Just how far can that role expand? After Rashard Mendenhall returns, which will be a true X-factor going into the second half of the season, who knows how the cosmetic makeup of the depth chart will be affected. However, in the opening weeks, I'd argue Dwyer's role should increase SUBSTANTIALLY.
The Redman groin injury is a clear dynamics changer. While most fans expect that he will start, it would be foolhardy to overwork the expected starter until his groin is at, or at least near, 100 percent. Lest, of course, one would prefer that Issac be out incrementally throughout the season...
After all, groin injuries can be among the most nagging, recurring and unpredictable injuries in the game. As such, Redman's carries should be limited for the rest of the preseason, particularly considering the team is currently carrying a surprisingly able featured back. Further considering the situation, it would be subsequently wise for the team to ease the runner back into his role once the "real games" begin!
The second team consideration is starting Jonathan Dwyer at running back early in the regular season, thus allowing a fresh Redman to serve in the backup/committee role.
This would not only keep Redman fresh for key short yardage situations, a specialty area for the back in the past, but it would likewise further enable a slower return to action for a player whose injury comes with a "code red" for recurrence.
Naturally, this would not work unless the team is entirely confident in Dwyer's ability, but I have no doubt that his commitment to excellence this summer will translate to a better-than-projected season for the surprising back this fall.
Beyond his ability to run between the tackles, has anybody else noticed Dwyer's penchant for saving plays courtesy of blitz pickup? Against the Colts, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey missed on a blitzing safety, but Dwyer confidently stepped into the defensive back, completely blocking his pursuit of the quarterback.
For his offseason dedication, preseason production, and focus on attention to detail, the Steelers may well want to consider starting the season with Jonathan Dwyer as their starting running back, perhaps even regardless of Isaac Redman's injury status headed into Denver.