According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there has been a bit of a shakeup at the Running Back position on the Steelers’ depth chart. For Sunday’s game against the Ravens, the Steelers have Jonathan Dwyer at the top of the chart, Isaac Redman behind Dwyer as the #2 guy, and veteran and two-time 1,000 Yard rusher Rashard Mendenhall listed as the #3 behind the “Fat Backs.”
This depth chart shuffle comes as no surprise to this writer after what happened last Sunday afternoon in Cleveland. As a unit, the Running Backs proved to be a complete and total joke against the Browns. I understand that some of their ineptness had to do with the fact that backups like Doug Legursky and Kelvin Beachum received large amounts of playing time on an already backup-heavy Offensive Line. Nevertheless, no excuse can be made for their collective output or lack thereof on Sunday.
With a calcified backup signal-caller like the 37 year-old Charlie Batch as the starter, they were counted on to produce and not make mistakes. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the group nothing of either sort during a game when they were needed the most.
On the day, the quintet was downright pathetic as they rushed for only 49 Yards on 20 Carries! As bad as those numbers are, their absolute inability to hold on to the ball with any consistency was the most infuriating part to watch that afternoon. In only 26:30 of possession time, the crew fumbled a combined 6 TIMES, and 4 of the cough-ups were recovered by the Browns! Each Running Back put the ball on the turf at least once, and Chris Rainey and Mendenhall each fumbled two times apiece!
Although each Running Back on the roster has shown a flash or two of solid play throughout this season, I have nevertheless been unimpressed with the consistency of Pittsburgh’s ground attack over their first 11 games. So far, the Steelers rank 22nd in Total Yards Rushing (1,117) and tied for 24th in Rushing Yards per Carry (3.8). Worst of all, due to injuries and inconsistent play, a clear-cut #1 Back has yet to emerge out of the group of the top four players on the depth chart. I understand that the days of “The Bus” and the “3-Down Back” are not the norm in the now-specialized League. But is is still no excuse for Pittsburgh to have loaded their roster with “Situational Backs” and subsequently cross their fingers for one to emerge as the featured “Bell-Cow” each and every weekend.
With all of these things in mind, I believe that changes must be made this offseason at the Running Back position, and someone capable of carrying the proverbial “load” to the tune of 20-25 Touches per game must emerge/be found. Do not get me wrong, the tasks to add new and talented depth and groom new starters on the Defensive side of the ball are the biggest priorities for this organization to work on when the season ends. But as pressing as the Defensive needs are, it is nevertheless imperative that the Running Back position cannot, and must not be overlooked during the Draft and Free Agency periods as I will discuss below.
Stable of “Situational Backs” & Impending Free Agents
Some would like to call the Steelers’ bevy of Running Backs on the depth chart “quality depth.” I on the other hand like to refer to the Running Back situation as “The Stable of “Situational Backs” & Free Agency Issues Waiting to Happen.” As I illustrated above, statistically and effectively, the Steelers’ running game has been sub-par so far this season. Although the load has been shared by many at Running Back, a clear-cut starter has yet to emerge and fully win the job outright. Because of their injuries and sparse productivity, no Back on Pittsburgh’s roster has totaled 100 Carries on the season, and each has struggled to find a “groove” as the team’s “go-to” guy at the position.
Although Dwyer leads the team in Rushing Yards (429), he has only participated in 8 games this season because of injuries. Redman and Mendenhall have each dealt with their own ailments and combined to play in only 13 games (Redman: 9, Mendenhall: 4), rush for a combined 420 Yards (Redman: 307, Mendenhall: 113), and struggle to tote the rock with any consistency in terms of YPC average (Redman: 3.5, Mendenhall: 3.3). Sadly, Rainey and Baron Batch have fared no better in the team’s 3rd Down Back role either. Rainey has rushed for only 79 Yards with a 3.8 YPC average, and Batch only rushed for 49 Yards with a less than 2.0 YPC average before he was demoted to the Practice Squad. The more the season has worn on, the more it has become abundantly clear that the Steelers do not have “The Guy” at the Running Back position, and instead have a group of decent “Situational Backs.” And some of these “Situational Backs” I might add have their contracts nearing their ends as well.
Dwyer and Redman are nice options for the team to have in Short-Yardage & Goal to Go moments, as both can do a solid job of pushing the pile and attacking the necessary hole for the appropriate gain. But as we saw most recently in the Kansas City game, neither Back has any business running Draws and slow developing run plays from the Shotgun formation. Furthermore, both big Backs lack the necessary speed to break any run over 35 Yards or scare the Defense into taking guys out of the box, and have illustrated that they are less-than-durable in terms of their health to handle a consistent load of Carries at the N.F.L. level. Both Backs will be Restricted Free Agents after this season, and Redman just turned 28 a few weeks ago. Do not get me wrong, I am totally on board with the Steelers keeping one of these two players as a long-term Short-Yardage option. It is always great to have a Back on the roster which is burly (230 lbs.+), strong, and can gain the tough and necessary Yardage near the Goal Line and account for 2-7 Touches per game. But to have two on the roster makes little to no sense for a team with salary cap issues like the Steelers, and at a position in which only one of the role-specific backups is needed.
Mendenhall once appeared to be the clear-cut #1 Back from 2009-2011, and did a fine job in his 2012 debut against the Eagles. Sadly, Mendenhall has been a shell of his former self this season, and has yet to win his old job back outright. Old habits, like his propensity to put the ball on the turf and inconsistency to attack the necessary hole without being tentative, or be satisfied with a 4 Yard gain up the gut and instead tip-toe to the outside have reared their ugly heads this year for the 5th year Back out of Illinois. This poor campaign comes at the worst possible time for Mendenhall as he A) is recently coming off of ACL surgery, and B) will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after the regular season ends. It would truly shock me if the Steelers dedicated anything market-value and above to a player like Mendenhall who will be 26 before the 2013 season begins, has already sustained a significant knee injury, and has logged over 800 Carries during his short career (847 so far).
Looking Towards the Draft
With three of their top 4 Running Backs set to become either Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agents after the season, and none of them able to win the starting job and the bulk of the Carries outright, I hope that the Steelers consider taking a Running Back (somewhere hopefully in Rounds 3-5) during next April’s Draft. I only say Rounds 3-5 because of the team’s dire needs on the Defensive side of the ball (FS & SS, OLB, ILB, CB), but luckily for the Steelers, some play-makers and possible “every-down Backs” could be available past the 1st Round of the Draft. Some players I particularly like at the Running Back position include Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle (Junior), UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin (Redshirt Senior), Florida’s Mike Gillislee (Senior), and Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor (Senior).
If Randle does indeed come out, I would like to see the Steelers take a long look at him as he has had quite the productive and successful career at Oklahoma State in less than three seasons. After a stellar Freshman campaign during which he put up 452 Yards Rushing and 2 TD’s, Randle exploded last year to the tune of 1,216 Yards and 24 Touchdowns on the ground, and has already amassed 1,212 in 11 Games this year. The part of Randle’s game that I find awesome is the fact that he can do damage as a pass-catcher. Over his career, Randle has caught 103 passes for 894 Yards and 3 TD’s, and with Todd Haley’s increased use of Backs in the passing game, the current Cowboy could be a solid scheme-fit with the Steelers.
In addition to Randle, I am a big fan of Gillislee and what he can do. For those of you who have not watched him, the Gator has exploded during his first season as “The Guy” with Florida. After splitting Carries with numerous Backs over his first three seasons (including the Steelers Chris Rainey), Gillislee has come out of his shell and led a solid ground attack for the Gators. Over 12 games, Gillislee has rushed for 1,104 Yards on 235 Carries and scored 10 Touchdowns on the ground and put up huge numbers against the likes of Florida State (140 Yards, 2 TD’s) and L.S.U. (146 Yards, 2 TD’s). Like most Florida Backs, Gillislee has solid quickness, and also possesses a frame (5’11” 209 lbs) that can take on the rigors of the N.F.L. after he held up nicely against the S.E.C. this year.
Living in “Pac-12 Country,” I have also been exposed to quite a bit of both Stepfan Taylor and Johnathan Franklin. And like Randle and Gillislee, I believe that either player could add a boost to the Steelers’ running game. For those of you “Ground ‘N Pound” fans on the East Coast, Taylor is the embodiment of a Steelers “Every Down Back” in terms of what he does best. After Toby Gerhart left for the N.F.L., many wondered who would shoulder the load for Stanford. Luckily for the Cardinal, Taylor stepped up and has run roughshod over the Pac-10/12 since 2010. Taylor put up 1,137 Yards his Sophomore year, 1,330 Yards his Junior year, and has already rushed for 1,364 Yards this season with the Pac-12 Title Game and a likely Rose Bowl left to play. Taylor is a bruising runner (5’11” 215 lbs.) who fights for extra Yards, pushes the pile well (38 TD’s over his career), and does so when the Defense knows he is what makes the Stanford Offense in the post-Andrew Luck era “go.” The Cardinal Back can also do an adequate job in the passing game and has recorded 88 Catches for 706 Yards and 5 TD’s (Career-High 32 Catches so far in 2012) as well.
Taylor’s competition this Friday will be Franklin who has been no slouch himself during his successful college career with the Bruins. Although Franklin played on some less than stellar Bruins teams to start his career, he nevertheless has improved each and every season and emerged as UCLA’s top ground threat. After he ran for 2,669 Yards on 506 Carries during his first three years, Franklin exploded this season to the tune of 1,506 Yards on 249 Carries and 11 Touchdowns via the run game. Although he was not used much during his first three seasons in the passing game due to the Bruins’ dreadful situation at Quarterback, Franklin has put up career-highs’ in Receptions (29), Receiving Yards (297), and Receiving Touchdowns (2) thanks in large part to the emergence of Redshirt Freshman Quarterback Brett Hundley. Franklin has the frame to run between the Tackles (5’10” 198 lbs.), and can do a nice job on Draws and Shotgun runs as he is employed in the Pistol and Shotgun Formations in UCLA’s Offense.
I cannot wait to watch the rest of the regular season unfold, because it should be interesting to watch the Running Backs on the roster jockey for Carries and extended playing time. Although I am excited to see which players inevitably step up, I would not mind if the Steelers chose to upgrade the Running Back position in April’s Draft. Not ones to spend the big bucks in the Free Agent market, Pittsburgh will have to look towards the Draft Process for help if their “Running Back By-Committee” system continues to operate like it has, the players currently in place start to leave via Free Agency, or are simply cut or allowed to walk after this season or the next.
How will the current depth chart work out and the Carries be divvied out over the next five games? I am not totally sure. But what I am sure of is that an influx of talent needs to be added to the mix at Running Back, and “The Guy” needs to emerge soon. If this does not happen though, do not be surprised if the Steelers go after a Running Back in April to try to make sense out of their “Running Back by Committee” issue.
Readers: Are you worried about the Steelers situation at Running Back? Do they need a legitimate #1 on the roster? Does one already exist? Are there other Running Backs you would like the team to look at this offseason in Free Agency or via the Draft Process?