For a team that put an emphasis on running the football, the Pittsburgh Steelers were not very good at it last season.
Despite running the ball on what seemed like nearly every offensive play, the Steelers finished 26th in the league in rushing with only 1,537 yards—their lowest since 2003 (1,488 yards) and fifth-lowest in the past 50 years.
Whether it was Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman or Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers were just never able to establish the ground game.
Dwyer’s 623 yards was the lowest by a Steelers leading rusher in a 16-game schedule since Merril Hoge ran for 610 yards in 1991.
Redman was unable to establish a power game, with only 410 yards on the ground, while the team’s most talented back—Rashard Mendenhall—finished with just 182 yards on 51 carries.
Even the speed of Chris Rainey was ineffective, as he ran for 102 yards on 26 carries.
Now with Rainey released and Dwyer, Redman and Mendenhall all free agents, the Steelers have an opportunity to get a fresh start, as they attempt to rebuild their backfield.
Whoever lines up behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should be running behind a rejuvenated offensive line, with Jack Bicknell Jr. now the offensive coach.
Bicknell plans to put an emphasis on smaller, athletic linemen who can move and may implement more of a zone-blocking scheme. But much of what he does will be based on the running back the Steelers go with in 2013.
Considering the Steelers have a number of athletic linemen including Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Mike Adams, they may look for more of a speed back who can get to the outside and take advantage of cut-back lanes.
Kenjon Barner is a burner from Oregon who ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds and has some of the best straight-line speed in the draft. However, he is only 196 pounds and may not have the size to run between the tackles. Plus, after watching Rainey get beat up last season—even on average hits—the Steelers will need to find a running back with a combination of speed and size.
A back such as Knile Davis—at 227 pounds—has terrific size and speed, running the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds. However, with a history of injuries, he is not the dependable back the Steelers need.
But should the Steelers overlook some of these deficiencies to get a potential home-run hitter?
After watching the backs last season, it may be worth the risk.
It would be like a return to the days of Willie Parker, where he may get stuffed at the line for most of the day, but then break off an 80-yard touchdown run.
Ideally, the Steelers would be able to find a more complete back who could consistently pick up four yards per carry.
But that is often times difficult to do with the faster backs, because they are smaller and get tackled easier.
Instead, the Steelers could go with a power back in the mold of Jerome Bettis, or more recently Redman and Dwyer.
Selecting a power back would provide the Steelers with a player who could consistently pick up four yards per carry, but is never a threat for a big play. It would be more of a return to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense.
While that may not be appealing to all, a power back would provide the Steelers with more of a consistent presence, as well as a runner who could excel in the red zone.
It just so happens that one of the best running-back prospects is a power runner.
Eddie Lacy did not run at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he is a north-south runner who has power between the tackles and is a perfect fit for what the Steelers do on offense—at least what they used to do.
The Steelers could also wait until later and grab the 6’1” 230-pound Le’Veon Bell. Though he doesn’t have the same upside as Lacy, he is a chain mover and could be that consistent presence the Steelers crave.
But when it comes down to it, the Steelers can easily bring back a couple of power backs with Dwyer and Redman and do not necessarily need to add another. But they do not need a pure speed back, either.
Instead, the Steelers need someone to replace Mendenhall, and thus a back with a combination of power and speed.
This means that running backs such as Giovani Bernard, Joseph Randle or Mike Gillislee are more in the all-around mold of running back that the Steelers should be looking for in this draft.
Of course, there is always the talented but risky Marcus Lattimore, who would have been the top running back in the draft if not for back-to-back seasons with major knee injuries.
Regardless of who the Steelers select, they need to find a running back who can carry the load.
There are enough role players on the team, and now they must acquire the type of running back who can help take the offense to the next level.
All combine results courtesy of NFL.com.