Pittsburgh Steelers: Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back
After years of talk, it appears as though the Pittsburgh Steelers have finally gotten serious about upgrading the ground game. Pittsburgh tied for 27th in rushing last season and should not have a difficult time improving this area.
Head coach Mike Tomlin made two significant changes to the coaching staff. He hired Mike Munchak to coach the offensive line and James Saxon to coach the running backs. But the changes did not stop there.
There was almost a complete overhaul with the personnel at running back.
The Steelers did not re-sign Felix Jones, Jonathan Dwyer or LaRod Stephens-Howling to play behind Le’Veon Bell. They decided to move in a completely different direction, signing LeGarrette Blount and drafting Dri Archer.
These additions will just be part of the equation, as the Steelers try to improve a ground attack that produced just 1,383 rushing yards on 3.5 yards per carry last season.
When it comes time for training camp, expect the Steelers to put an emphasis on rushing the football. This will make running back one of the most interesting positions to watch.
Here is a breakdown of Pittsburgh’s running back depth chart as the start of training camp approaches later this summer.
6th String: Miguel Maysonet
Miguel Maysonet signed a reserve/future deal with the Steelers back in January and will look to make his mark.
Despite being in the league for just one season, Maysonet has already spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets and Washington Redskins. He has an uphill battle if he wants to stick with the Steelers as the top of the depth chart appears set. That leaves only one potential roster spot available for the rest of the backs to fight for.
At 5’10” and 210 pounds, Maysonet has decent size for an NFL running back, but he has a lot to overcome after playing college football at Stony Brook (New York). But he did show that he could produce against top competition when he totaled 158 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse.
Maysonet had 1,964 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior and was the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award (FCS outstanding player).
Based on his production at the collegiate level, Maysonet has good vision, especially when running between the tackles. He has enough burst to hit holes quickly, but he lacks the speed to break away from defenders.
As a potential role player on passing downs, Maysonet must show that he can pass-protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. These are two things that he did not have to do much of while in college.
The best-case scenario for Maysonet will be to earn a spot on the practice squad. There is too much talent ahead of him at this point to make the final roster.
5th String: Tauren Poole
Tauren Poole came to the NFL in 2012 as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers. He spent his rookie season on the injured reserve list and then earned a spot on the Panthers and Colts' practice squads in 2013.
A strong junior season at Tennessee (1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns) had Poole’s draft stock on the rise, but his production fell off during his senior season. He ran for just 693 yards and five touchdowns, so it was no surprise that he went undrafted.
Though he has not shown much in his career so far, the 5’10” and 210-pound Poole has plenty to offer.
He has good size to run between the tackles and is capable of breaking tackles to pick up yards after first contact. More importantly, he can play special teams.
Beyond his measurable, Poole is a high-character player. He won the Pat Tillman Award at the East-West Shrine Game in 2012. According to ShrineGame.com, the award is given to “the player who demonstrates courage, perseverance and talent throughout the week leading up to the East-West Shrine Game and recognizes his overall achievements and conduct.”
As a team that is trying to find new leaders, Poole is exactly the type of character player that the Steelers want on the team.
But he will need to show more than character. He has poor hands in the passing game and is not strong in pass protection. Those are two qualities that backup running backs must have to stick on the roster. The practice squad is a more likely destination.
4th String: Alvester Alexander
Alvester Alexander signed with the Steelers last August after he spent time on the practice squads of multiple teams in 2012.
While he did not make the final roster, Alexander did show enough to spend the entire 2013 season on the practice squad. That should only help him in his push to make the team in 2014.
Even though the Steelers have three players ahead of Alexander, only two of them are true running backs. Archer is a flex player who is listed as a running back and receiver. That means that there is room for another pure back to make the roster.
Alexander will be the early favorite. He already has a year of experience with the team, and at 5’11” and 213 pounds, he has ideal size to withstand the pounding of the NFL.
Despite his experience, Alexander was not overly productive. That will be a concern as he battles for a roster spot this season. He will have to lean on his experience with the Steelers if he wants to make the team.
In his limited opportunities during the preseason last year, Alexander ran for 43 yards on 15 carries. That is an average of just 2.9 yards per attempt—which includes a long run of 14 yards.
Alexander must produce more if he wants to earn a spot on the roster. However, with the odds of keeping four running backs out of the camp participants fairly high, Alexander will be the favorite to hold off Poole and Maysonet.
3rd String: Dri Archer
Not only did the Steelers select the fastest player at this year’s combine, but they also selected the second-fastest player at the combine ever. Archer’s 40-yard dash time of 4.26 seconds was just a hair slower than the combine record set by Chris Johnson (4.26 seconds) in 2008.
Archer will need to use all of that speed because his 5’8” and 182-pound frame will raise concerns surrounding his durability.
That aside, Archer will provide the Steelers the type of weapon that they were hoping to get when they drafted Chris Rainey in 2012—a fast, versatile player who can play multiple positions on offense and contribute as a return man on special teams.
Running backs coach James Saxon already said that they want to get the ball in Archer’s hands, however, they can, via Will Graves of the The Associated Press.
"Whatever way we can find to get this kid the ball or to have him involved in our offense we are going to do that as a staff," Saxon said. "(Offensive coordinator) Todd Haley is going to do a great job with that. We are all going to work together to get this guy in the right place."
It will be interesting to see how the Steelers decide to use him. His former head coach at Kent State, Paul Haynes, told Scott Brown of ESPN.com that he would have lined up Archer at just one spot.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes we made here is flexing him out," Haynes said. "We needed to keep him at running back just because we could have gotten him more touches. He has great vision, he has great feet, he has great burst -- all the things a good running back needs to be."
Archer was extremely successful at running back as a junior. He ran for 1,429 yards with an unbelievable 8.99 yards per carry. He also scored six touchdowns.
With Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount ahead of him, Archer will be nothing more than a role player in Pittsburgh’s offense—albeit one with elite speed. He will be a threat to score every time he touches the ball and should see anywhere between five and 10 touches per game.
Backup: LeGarrette Blount
Though he will not start, LeGarrette Blount was one of the best offseason additions that the Steelers had. He was one of the top running backs available in free agency and will be a dependable option behind Bell.
The 6’0” and 250-pound Blount rushed for 772 yards last season all while averaging 5.0 yards per carry. It was the third time in four seasons that he ran for over 700 yards and the second in which he averaged 5.0 yards per carry.
Blount will provide a significant upgrade over Jones and Dwyer. These two combined for 381 yards on 97 carries and scored no touchdowns. By comparison, Blount has carried the ball at least 150 times in three of his four seasons and has never scored less than two touchdowns in a season.
Not only will he reduce Bell's workload, but Blount will also act as a power back for short-yardage and red-zone situations.
Blount told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his style was exactly what the Steelers were looking for.
"They liked my running style," Blount said. "They liked how tough, how hard-nosed I ran. They liked how I get downhill, get my shoulders down and get extra yards after contact."
Blount added that he is completely in line with the Steelers’ belief that they can be a top-five rushing team in 2014.
"I totally feel that way," Blount said. "I agree with that 100 percent."
He will be a major part of this as he should expect to carry the ball between 100 and 150 times next season. Reducing Bell's workload and helping keep both running backs fresh throughout the 2014 season are important steps in helping the team reach its goals.
Starter: Le’Veon Bell
It did not take long before we all realized that Bell would be the Steelers' top running back. Tomlin began to treat him like a starter in training camp, so it was no surprise when he locked down the No. 1 role early in the season.
Injuries resulted in a slow start to Bell’s career, but he picked up his play as the season progressed. He would finish the year with 860 yards and eight touchdowns. While he only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, Brad Evans of Yahoo Sports reported that Bell did force missed tackles on 35.8 percent of his carries—which compares favorably with Reggie Bush and Matt Forte.
With a better understanding of the offense and an improved offensive line under Munchak's coaching, it is almost certain that Bell will increase his average yards per carry next season.
Besides his ability as a runner, Bell is such a threat because he is such a good receiver out of the backfield. Last season, he had 45 receptions for 399 yards, including five for 20 yards or more.
He should once again be a major contributor on both the ground and in the air, though with a reduced workload with Blount’s presence in the backfield. Bell told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is fine with that.
"When he's in the game, it's going to bring a different look than I bring. It's going to be showing the defense a lot of different looks. I'm excited about it. I definitely can't wait to see what he can do when we get the pads on."
When it comes to sharing the load, Bell will lose some carries, but let’s not get carried away. He had 289 touches as a rookie in 13 games played. That is an average of 22.23 touches (18.77 rushes and 3.46 receptions) per game.
Those numbers should not change much this season. Ideally, the Steelers will run Bell 20 times per game and throw him the ball three or four times. Over the course of an entire season, that will translate to about 320 carries and upward of 64 receptions.
Those numbers may seem a bit high, but that is considering that Bell should take on a more integral role in the offense now that he is in his second season. If he even approaches these numbers, Bell will be one of the most productive backs in the league.
Combined with Blount, the Steelers will have one of the best running back duos in the league and a legitimate chance at developing maybe not a top-five, but a top-10 rushing attack in 2014.
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