Have Pittsburgh Steelers Found New Thunder-and-Lightning Run Game Attack?

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Have Pittsburgh Steelers Found New Thunder-and-Lightning Run Game Attack?
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The 2012 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of worst rushing attacks in franchise history.

Under first-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the Steelers ranked 26th with 96.1 yards per game on the ground. Their 3.7 yards per carry average was fourth worst in the league.

Following the season, general manager Kevin Colbert told Bob Labriola of Steelers.com that the running backs “didn’t produce like we had anticipated them producing.”

This prompted the Steelers to select Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the draft.

The Steelers also signed former Arizona Cardinals running back LaRod Stephens-Howling to bolster depth and to help replace Chris Rainey’s presence in the lineup.

So far, the new-look backfield has a lot of potential and has some wondering if the Steelers will take a “thunder-and-lightning” approach to their run game.

Stephens-Howling is a rather unassuming player with his short stature at just 5’7", but he has deceptive speed and quickness which allows him to sneak through holes in the offensive line.

He put this on display when he led the Steelers with 40 yards on seven carries in the preseason opener against the New York Giants.

In his short time with the starting offense, Stephens-Howling was able to duck between offensive linemen using his shiftiness to consistently gain positive yardage. Even though he didn’t have any passes thrown his way, he has shown that he can catch the ball out of the backfield throughout camp.

Stephens-Howling will not be used as a feature back as he has never had more than the 110 carries for 356 yards that he had last year with Arizona, but he could be used in ways that the Steelers had planned for Rainey prior to releasing him earlier this year.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport
Will Le'Veon Bell and LaRod Stephens-Howling form a thunder-and-lightning rushing attack?

Haley has a history of using his running backs in a variety of ways, and Stephens-Howling is a perfect fit to use on some third down packages—particularly for screen passes. He can also be used as the “lightning” on outside speed runs to the running between the tackles “thunder” of Bell, Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer.

Bell figures to be the starter once the season begins even though he has had a lingering knee issue which kept him out of the first preseason game.

Despite his limited work in recent weeks, Bell exploded onto the scene early in camp and showed why the Steelers invested a second-round pick in him.

He was a well-rounded back while at Michigan State, and Colbert was impressed with his pro potential, via TribLIVE Radio.

Le'Veon was really, you know, he was very interesting to us because we looked at him as an NFL back. You know he had 1,700 yards last year and close to 900 of those yards were yards after contact, which indicates the ability to make NFL-type runs because the holes in the NFL aren't going to be the same as they are in college. So you saw him make a lot of what we thought were NFL-type runs.

Bell has demonstrated the ability to get to the outside in practice but can still run with power between the tackles. He also proved that he can carry the load while in college.

2012 Running Back Statistics, via Sports-Reference.com
  Steelers' Running Backs Le'Veon Bell
Attempts 412 382
Rushing Yards 1,537 1,793
Average 3.7 4.7
Receptions 65 32
Receiving Yards 503 167
Total Touchdowns 8 13

He led the nation in 2012 with 382 carries and 414 plays from scrimmage. Prior to last year, he never carried the ball more than 182 times while at Michigan State.

Besides his ability to take a bulk of the carries, Bell has soft hands and can be a dangerous weapon in the passing game. He has had plenty of looks through the air during training camp.

The combination of Bell and Stephens-Howling appears to be a good “thunder-and-lightning” package on paper, but that style of ground game may never materialize once the regular season begins.

According to running back coach Kirby Wilson, the Steelers want a three-down back, via Mark Kaboly of  the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

You would love to have a back who can play first down through third down. That’s always the best. Now, you have players who can spell a starter, then you have situational players that have strengths in other areas, put for the most part you always want a guy who is there first through third.

There goes the idea of a “thunder-and-lightning” attack, but it does not mean that the Steelers won’t use their other backs.

Even if Bell does become the “first through third” running back, do not expect him to get 350 carries as a rookie. The Steelers will still use their other backs and provide them with plenty of opportunities to get their hands on the ball.

Haley is a coach who likes to use his talent and that includes sharing the load between his running backs. This is evident when you examine the number of carries that his top two running backs have received in his recent coaching stops in Arizona, Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Not since his first year as offensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals has a second running back had fewer than 100 carries in a season. In 2011, this was far from the case when Thomas Jones led the Kansas City Chiefs with 153, followed by Jackie Battle with 149 and Dexter McCluster with 114.

Stats via http://www.pro-football-reference.com/.

The 2013 Steelers probably won’t be as versatile as Haley’s 2011 Chiefs backfield, but the carries will be distributed.

If Bell is everything that he is touted to be, he should get the bulk of the carries and should lead the team with at least 250 rushing attempts. But who will get the rest of the carries?

As mentioned earlier, Stephens-Howling will have a role in the offense, but he should be more of a feature back in the passing game and may have 50 carries at most. 

The rest of the load will fall on the shoulders of either Redman or Dwyer.

Even though Dwyer led the Steelers in 2012 with 623 yards, he is not a lock to make the team as they may keep Baron Batch for special teams purposes.

That leaves Redman as the logical choice to be the top backup to Bell.

Redman did not have a great statistical season in 2012 with 410 yards and an average of 3.7 yards per carry. However, he runs with power and has proven to be a solid No. 2 back who can also contribute on third downs as a blocker and a receiver.

Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers coaching staff likes Redman as a backup running back as well as a short-yardage back.

Redman has excelled in that role in the past and should be comfortable there this season after struggling as a feature back in 2012.

But even though he was unable to grasp the No. 1 role, Redman is still capable of moving the pile forward on nearly every carry. What he lacks in speed, he makes up for in power and toughness, and he will provide a nice complement to Bell and Stephens-Howling.

No matter how the carries are distributed, the Steelers backfield looks to be improved in 2013 and that will only mean good things for the running attack.

 

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