Saying the Steelers running back situation was a mess in 2012 would be putting it lightly and Sunday night's game against the Ravens embodies what Pittsburgh's backs have gone through all season long.
In that game, the Steelers activated five running backs to play against Baltimore. Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey all saw action in the game. Five backs is an absurd amount for any team to have on an active roster, but it was a good thing Pittsburgh had them all because two didn't finish the game.
Redman and Batch both left Sunday's contest after just one carry with various injuries. Right now, there's no timetable for their return.
But out of this chaos, one player has emerged as a light in the dark depths of the backfield. He's embodied what it is to be a Steelers running back and taken advantage of his opportunities when they've been presented.
That back is Jonathan Dwyer.
Dwyer has been the Steelers best ball-carrier this season and it isn't even close. He has a team high 89 carries for 410 yards and he's the only back averaging more than four yards per carry. A lot of that has to do with his strong running style and the yards he creates after contact.
This is a style Pittsburgh people should be very familiar with.
On April 20th, 1996, the Steelers traded for a nearly 250-lb fullback that would forever change their franchise. Now, I'm not saying that Jonathan Dwyer is the same back as Jerome Bettis, but if you watch him run, they've got a lot in common.
Both guys are big backs (Dwyer standing at 5-11, just under 230-lbs) who have great agility for their size and can move well within the confines of tight holes. They also have very similar, "twinkle-toes" type cuts that guys their size should never be able to make.
Knowing all of Dwyer's stats is fine and comparing him to a future Hall of Famer is terrific, but two numbers really jumped out at me when checking up on the Steelers backs.
In the four wins Dwyer has been a part of this season, he's averaged 16 carries for 78 yards. In the games the Steelers have lost that he's been a part of, Dwyer has only carried it a total of 24 times for 97 yards.
Based on those numbers, I was pretty puzzled when I saw a lot of the Steelers play-calling last night, especially near the goal line.
On a 3rd-and-2 from inside the Ravens five, offensive coordinator Todd Haley opted to keep Dwyer in the game, making me think they'd chip away with him against a defense who couldn't stop the 229-lb back the entire game.
Instead, he has Byron Leftwich throw a fade to Mike Wallace that ends up incomplete and forces the team to kick a field goal.
It's amazing me all season that the Steelers have refused to use their strongest runner inside the red zone. Dwyer has zero touchdowns this season and generally relegates goal-line duty to Mendenhall or Redman.
Now, this isn't all to say Dwyer is a flawless back who is among the likes of Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice.
Dwyer doesn't have the stamina to carry the entire workload like some of the top backs and, frankly, he never did. Even at Georgia Tech, Dwyer was subbed in and out and was part of a triple-option team where he wasn't always getting the ball.
He also has a long way to go in the passing game, both in terms of protection and out in routes. Pittsburgh likes to use Isaac Redman as a blocker and Chris Rainey as a receiver and, while I don't think Dwyer is ever going to be a better pass catcher than Rainey, he doesn't need to be.
If the Steelers can continue to work on Dwyer's pass protection, it'll go a long way into keeping the guy who has been their best back, on the field.
With the Steelers 2013 cap situation looming and Mendenhall and Redman both set to become free agents, the Steelers may have to look in another direction in the backfield. Although I think the team will hold on to Redman and they'd like to bring Mendenhall back, a knee reconstruction and Achillies injury coupled with poor play on the field doesn't bode well for Mendy to stay with the Steelers.
The point is that they really won't need to bring him back if they have a better option in the backfield, which they do.
Dwyer is 23 years old and is a RFA (restricted-free-agent) at the end of the season, meaning he'll come back on a cheap, one-year deal. He can take that year to prove he's the guy the Steelers have been searching for since Willie Parker rode off into the sunset.
I truly do believe that Jonathan Dwyer can be an upper-echilon back in the NFL, given the proper coaching and a legitimate opportunity. That opportunity has to come from the Steelers sooner rather than later, or they'll miss out on something special.