Steelers Sunday Spotlight: Running back / Help wanted

First in a weekly series

January 20, 2013
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The once-proud Steelers running game ground to a crawl in 2012, producing its fewest yards since the "Tommy Gun" offense failed so miserably in 2003.

And it's only getting worse.

The Steelers have one halfback under contract for 2013, Baron Batch, whose broken forearm is mending. Rashard Mendenhall is an unrestricted free agent. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are restricted free agents. The Steelers announced they would cut Chris Rainey hours after the half-pint halfback was arrested in Florida on charges of domestic battery; that will become official after the Super Bowl.

They have no true feature halfback if they do not sign Mendenhall, who had a terrible 2012 season because of injuries and a mistake in judgment that cost him a one-game suspension and perhaps a chance to return for 2013.

Their priority must be either to re-sign Mendenhall or bring in another feature back, most likely through the draft. They cannot go into their next season without one. Dwyer and Redman are complementary backs and they have value in that. Batch can be a good role player, one similar to that played by Mewelde Moore from 2008-11.

"I can say collectively that group wasn't as good as we anticipated," general manager Kevin Colbert said Wednesday.

If they are serious about improving their running game, they must find a runner to do so. The odds of Mendenhall returning are not good. First, do the coaches and/or his teammates want him back after he failed to show up for their game Dec. 9 against San Diego after he was informed he would be inactive? And does Mendenhall want to return to a team and a coach who did not start him again after he fumbled twice in four carries Nov. 25 at Cleveland?

It is the second time coach Mike Tomlin benched his former first-round draft choice. He did not play him at halfback Sept. 27, 2009 at Cincinnati, because he felt his preparation that week did not warrant it. Mendenhall played only on special teams that game.

Yet through it all, Mendenhall has been a good back when not injured. He ran for 1,108 yards and a 4.6-yard average per carry in 2009 and 1,273 yards and a 3.9-yard average with 13 touchdowns in 2010. He had 928 yards and a 4.1-yard average when his 2011 season ended early in the final game at Cleveland with a torn ACL.

Mendenhall missed the first three games of this past season because of that injury. He started in the fourth game and looked like the old Mendenhall, running for a 13-yard touchdown with a lateral that was later ruled a pass reception and picking up 68 yards on 13 carries.

But early in the next game at Tennessee, his achilles was hurt after his sixth carry, and he would miss the next four games.

Mendenhall managed only 182 yards rushing on 51 carries and scored no touchdowns on the ground. He is young, turning 26 in June. He is 5 feet 10 inches, 225 pounds and has the combination of speed, quickness and enough power to make him a dangerous runner, as he was for several seasons.

Good runners, as the Houston Texans have shown with Arian Foster and the Steelers did with another undrafted player in Willie Parker, can be found anywhere. But the best still go high in the draft.

The Steelers have a choice: Sign Mendenhall or draft one, and scouts have identified no back as a great prospect this year. One or two might be drafted in the first round, but early on, no back is rated a first-round prospect. Alabama's Eddie Lacy is rated as the top back by, but that site gives him a second-round grade.

Dwyer led the Steelers with 623 yards, their lowest leading rusher since Merrill Hoge topped Chuck Noll's final team in 1991 with 810. Dwyer averaged 4.0 yards a carry and scored twice, as did Redman, who came in second with 410 yards and a 3.7-yard average.

Those two combined for three consecutive individual 100-yard games at midseason. Dwyer ran for 122 at Cincinnati and 107 the following game against Washington. But he did not play in the next game because of a thigh injury, and Redman ran for 147 at the New York Giants. The Steelers won all three games.

They did little on the ground the rest of the way.

There is no question that Dwyer and Redman are big enough, but they are not quick enough to avoid hits or tackles, and their consistency was not good. They also had various injuries throughout the season that curtailed them and a constantly shifting offensive line.

Neither is seen as a back the Steelers want to have as their top runner in 2013.

Batch, who missed his entire rookie season with an ACL injury that occurred in training camp, came back with a limited role in 2012. He had only 25 carries for 49 yards and caught four passes. That role should expand next season, especially with Rainey out of the picture.

The Steelers had plans for Rainey and thought he could develop into a role player as well with his speed. They did not release him because they did not believe in his playing ability, as some might suggest.

Adding a feature back should lift all boats in this backfield because the three remaining halfbacks are all capable complementary backs.

For the first time in years, the Steelers also counted a fullback among their backfield. Will Johnson served primarily as a blocker and an occasional receiver. He caught 15 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown and carried only twice for 7 yards. They believe he will only get better at a position that was new to him in his first year in the NFL.