The more I see of the Pittsburgh Steelers, especially in the last few years, the more I'm convinced that the Steelers are missing something in the running game. They have talent there and to spare, but they lack a closer, a player that can get that one tough yard whenever it is absolutely necessary.
In short, they're missing Jerome Bettis.
Now, any team would like to have a back like Bettis. During his career with the Steelers, he had a reputation for unselfish leadership and for being the back the Steelers could always count on to get the yards or scores needed to claim victory.
Since he retired after earning a championship ring in Super Bowl XL, the Steelers have started Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker for most of their games. They've had other players part of the time too; however none of them have been good at punching the ball into the end zone consistently.
The Steelers used to be able to get down inside the five-yard line and be secure in the knowledge that No. 36 would finish the job. It's one of the reasons so many people were shocked by his fumble in the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff game with the Colts. He simply didn't fail.
This season, after finishing 21st in the NFL in scoring, thanks to a rushing attack that had absolutely no punch in close quarters, the Steelers are going with the usual suspects in the backfield. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer lead the charge with Baron Batch and Chris Rainey doing the work as change-of-pace guys with speed and receiving skills.
Mendenhall should be back soon, perhaps sooner than anyone expected, but he's part of that same group.
The Steelers still lack a closer in the backfield. That worries me a lot considering the fact that we've yet to see a solid defensive effort since late last season. Beyond improving the scoring offense, the big, bruising back can do other things to help a team.
One of those is take pressure off a defense late in games. The Steelers were also a team once upon a time that could get a lead and protect it with deft running by Bettis. They didn't need to outscore teams, they only needed to get out in front and then grind out the clock.
Combining that kind of ability on today's roster with an elite and clutch quarterback that makes big plays and wide receivers that can slaughter an opposing defense and the Steelers would be very hard to pry the ball away from.
The Bettis-type back is a dying breed these days. There aren't many left in the NFL and even fewer coming out of college. If the Steelers were trying to find one these days, the best thing they could do is see what a guy like fullback Will Johnson can do in those situations. Johnson is a true fullback and he might be the perfect guy to turn to for goal line carries, but no one will know until he gets some opportunities.
Given the Steelers' recent usage of him in passing situations, I'm surprised we haven't seen him in a more conventional spot for a big back. He has the size and athletic makeup to do the job.
Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer figure to get the most looks in short yardage spots, but I'm not sure either player has the strength and size combination to punch through the middle in a pile up. Dwyer probably has the edge in this department given his stronger lower body and more brutish style.
A lot has been written about a stronger commitment to the running game and greater emphasis on production from the backfield. That didn't happen in the team's Week 1 tilt with the Denver Broncos. It's something that the Steelers absolutely must use if they're going to take some heat of a growing offensive line, a veteran defense and a quarterback that seems to take way too many hits.
Watching the Steelers lately has made me nostalgic for Bettis and for the days when the Steelers could slam the door on opponents. I'm pretty sure Bettis will be among the finalists next year for a bust in Canton.
As for the Bus himself, he's been content going from ground game to sports commentary. I have to say, he knows his football. He's also dedicated himself to charity work, continuing the leadership off the field that he showed so well on it with his foundation "The Bus Stops Here."
If you nostalgic for the Bettis days too and want to do your part to help out his foundation, Total Sports Enterprises has partnered with Jerome Bettis to produce the officially licensed Jerome Bettis 36 Forever collection. Consisting of items such as t-shirts, hoodies, backpacks and photos, the collection offers something for all fans of "The Bus." A portion of proceeds from the sale of the 36 Forever Collection goes to support the Jerome Bettis "The Bus Stops Here" Foundation. Click here to take a look!
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