The Pittsburgh Steelers weren't successful in their attempt to improve their run game in 2013. They ended the season ranked 27th in rushing yards per game and had only nine rushing touchdowns for the year.
Things did get better near the end of the season. Three of their six games with over 100 rushing yards came in the final three weeks. Even more improvement appears to be on the horizon now that the offensive line coaching duties belong to Mike Munchak, the former Tennessee Titans head coach.
However, there are challenges the Steelers must still overcome to get the run game where they want it to be.
The biggest one is the shallowness of the roster at the running back position. The Steelers opted not to re-sign free agents Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, with the former still unsigned by a new team and the latter joining the Arizona Cardinals. Stopgap rushers like Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling also were not retained by the Steelers.
That leaves the Steelers with four backs on their roster: Le'Veon Bell, Miguel Maysonet, Tauren Poole and Alvester Alexander. Among the four, only Bell—the Steelers' 2013 second-round draft pick—touched the football last season.
Considering how the offensive line struggled in run blocking—owing to a muddled scheme as well as the season-ending injury suffered by center Maurkice Pouncey in Week 1—Bell had a relatively successful rookie season.
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Bell rushed 224 times in 2013, for 860 yards and eight touchdowns. His 3.5 yards-per-carry average wasn't great, to be sure, and he only had one game with over 100 rushing yards, but he also had five other games with 70 or more yards. He also caught 45 passes for 399 yards.
There's no doubt Bell will remain the centerpiece of Pittsburgh's run game this year, however he cannot get every carry every week. The Steelers need to find someone to pair with him, and the odds are high that player isn't currently on the roster.
We need to add quality depth to that position, whether it's through free agency or the draft. Le'Veon Bell is a talented player, but he's also a young player. It would be good to get a been-there, done-that type of guy in the room to maybe help him with his growth and development, but I don't view it as a necessity.
The Steelers clearly are aware of the issue and have met or will meet with two veteran free-agent running backs in hopes of finding someone who can earn significant playing time alongside Bell while mentoring the young player.
Former New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount was initially scheduled to meet with the Steelers on Sunday and Monday, according to the National Football Post's Aaron Wilson, but that has been pushed back to Friday after the league meetings wrap.
Jones-Drew left Pittsburgh without a contract, but Tomlin said the meeting went well and that the Steelers are still "open" to signing him. However, that will likely rest on a few factors—one, how things go later in the week with Blount; two, money; and three, playing time.
The Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette notes that Jones-Drew wants to be a starter, while CBS Sports adds that Jones-Drew could be looking for as much as $3.5 million per year, something the Steelers cannot afford with the team presently just $2.17 million under the salary cap.
Both of Jones-Drew's demands will have to fall by the wayside if he's going to be playing in Pittsburgh in 2014, especially considering his age (29) and injury history (foot and hamstring in recent years). Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News says the Steelers are one of three teams expected to meet with Jones-Drew's camp this week. Potentially, these differences can be ironed out in this second round of discussions.
This makes the Blount meeting later this week even more interesting. Blount is most certainly not asking for as much money as Jones-Drew; Blount made a total of $680,000 (with a $630,000 base salary) from his one-year deal with the Patriots, compared to Jones-Drew's $4.95 million salary from 2013. And though his four seasons in the NFL have been spotty at best, Blount's 2013 season certainly stood out more than Jones-Drew's.
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In his career, Blount has rushed 579 times, for 2,711 yards. He has a 4.7 yards-per-carry average and has scored 20 rushing touchdowns. For the Patriots last season, he had 153 carries for 772 yards and seven touchdowns, and averaged an impressive five yards per carry.
Blount doesn't have as many carries to his name as Jones-Drew, nor the injury history. He could easily find a niche in Pittsburgh as a change-of-pace option and stick on the roster for more than one season. The same may not be the case for Jones-Drew. However, the Steelers may not be anticipating keeping either player on the roster for the long term, so durability issues may not be a concern.
Tomlin's comments on Sunday are also telling. While he noted that adding a veteran running back could aid Bell's development, he also stated that he doesn't feel as though doing so is "a necessity." This means the meetings with Blount and Jones-Drew are just a matter of the Steelers weighing their options rather than a sign that either are destined to wear the black and gold.
The Steelers could simply opt to go the less expensive route and find Bell's backup in the upcoming NFL draft.
The ever-decreasing importance of running backs to NFL offenses means that the Steelers can find their No. 2 back in the middle to late rounds of the draft. The Steelers can address other needs earlier on, like wide receiver or defensive end, and still feel confident that a good fit at running back can be had on the draft's third day.
Towson's Terrance West has many of the same attributes of Jones-Drew and Blount in that he's a big and powerful 5'9", 225-pound back. He had a stellar 2013 season, with 413 carries for 2,509 yards and 41 touchdowns. That's a lot of production, which could be detrimental to his NFL longevity as a starter. However, as Bell's backup, he could be a strong contributor in Pittsburgh.
As Bleacher Report's Ryan Lownes points out, West has power, impressive athleticism for his size and good blitz pickup skills. West also caught 26 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown in 2013. Good receiving skills will be necessary if Bell's backup is also going to see significant action on third downs. West's drawbacks, like a lack of burst and less-than-ideal vision, also won't matter as much if he's a No. 2 back rather than a starter.
Antonio Andrews from Western Kentucky is also a larger running back who could be in the Steelers' draft plans. Andrews rushed for 1,730 yards in 2013, had 16 rushing touchdowns and averaged 6.5 yards per carry. Like West, Andrews is powerful; but as FirstRoundGrade.com's scouting report notes, he has good vision as a between-the-tackles rusher, something that West lacks.
Much like West, Andrews can catch the football. He's also worked as a kick and punt returner. All of this amounts to a lot of work in college, again calling his durability into question. But as part of a rotation in Pittsburgh, he'd fill a niche and not be in danger of burning out too quickly.
It's clear that the Steelers know they are lacking when it comes to running back depth. And the interviews they've scheduled with Jones-Drew and Blount suggest they have a type of back they'd like to add as a complement to Bell.
He must be powerful and big, though not necessarily impressively fast. He must be a willing blocker and an able receiver. Most importantly, he must make an impact and not be just another running back getting carries in Pittsburgh by default.
Which back would you prefer the Steelers pick up to pair with Bell?
There are a number of factors in play that will determine if the Steelers can run the ball well this season. They range from Todd Haley's play calls to Munchak's line scheme, from the offensive linemen themselves to Bell showing development in his second season with the team.
However, the back complementing Bell in the run game is also an important part of whether or not the Steelers can rebound from two seasons of poor rushing. Finding him should be the next step in the Steelers' plan to do it.
Whether they choose Jones-Drew, Blount, some other veteran or a rookie, they know what they are looking for. They just have to sign the one who makes the most personnel and financial sense for at least 2014, if not longer.