Monday, July 15, 2013

Steelers Running Backs: For Whom Will The Bell Toll?


“There’s the devaluing of the running back position,” Jerome Bettis told USA TODAY Sports before the 2013 NFL Draft. “You see a devaluing of the running backs and the higher valuation of the offensive line. It’s difficult for me because I don’t want to see the art of being a running back disappear.”

The NFL’s sixth-highest career rusher, Steelers legend and future Hall of Famer obviously has strong feelings about the current state of his position. He would seem to have a point as offensive linemen dominated the top of the draft. In all, five offensive linemen were selected in the top ten (as shown in the graph below), with the "skill" positions falling lower than expected.

Aside: I abhor the term "skill" player/position. It's grossly inaccurate. Try telling the athletic 6'6", 305-pound Lane Johnson, who went fourth overall, ran a 4.72/40, ran the three-cone drill in 7.31 secs and broad jumped 118.0 inches that he isn't skilled. But, I digress...

It is true that more and more teams are getting away from the romanticized notion of the feature running back and moving more toward having an aggregate output from the position. Then pair that with a position that is famous for a short half-life, and it becomes clearer why Bettis' words have the ring of truth to them.

The Steelers, though, are looking very much to once again make the running game an integral part of their offense. They proved this by going out and drafting Le'Veon Bell in the second round of this past April's draft, one of the highest picks they've used on a running back in many years.

As If It Ain't Steel has pointed out in past writings, it's partly because of coordinator Todd Haley's offensive direction. His offense is predicated on two main concepts. Firstly, he wants his unit to go on sustained drives that kill the clock and, in doing so, keeps the defense and the opposing offense off of the field. When done successfully, thus inhibits the opponent's ability to score points of their own. Secondly, he wants the running game to set up the passing game.

The Steelers' version of "running back by committee" used in 2012 simply didn't work. They realize that they need a workhorse to tow the load, but also with a backup who can come in and take carries with little-to-no drop off. Will Bell be that man week one? The Sporting News thinks that he will as they have him as a front runner for offensive Rookie of the Year. - http://tinyurl.com/p2ofalf

Steelers players have chimed in on Bell and his promise as well.

"I think its he's going to be exceptional," said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. "He came in, he was 250 in college, he came into rookie mini camp at 234 and they say with him running around the edge being an outside zone player that he can be with the power that he brings, I think its really going to help us out."

If that is to be the case, however, Bell must absolutely do one thing particularly well.

“Around here, if you don't block, you don't play,” Jonathan Dwyer said.

Steelers running back coach Kirby Wilson, who has been coaching runners in the NFL for 16 years, backs that statement and then takes it a step further.

“That's anybody. That's any running back,” Wilson said. “You have to be able to protect the quarterback or you won't play. That's not just in Pittsburgh. That's in every NFL city.” - http://tinyurl.com/ponrc2v

Bell is no exception, but he says he's up to the task. The problem lies in his having two others with him in the backfield who've already proven themselves in that capacity.

According to Pro Football Focus, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman pass blocked better than nearly any other running back in the NFL. In 2012, they were Nos. 1 and 2 in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency, "a rating that measures pressures allowed on a per-snap basis." They also finished tied for third in halfback blocking.

It is well known that the Steelers tried to clear room in their crowded backfield by shopping Dwyer. A revelation he used to motivate him. As SteelBlitz.com highlighted, Dwyer is excited for Training Camp "to prove everyone wrong." - http://tinyurl.com/q3x9m5f

This is a make or break year in Pittsburgh for Dwyer. He has to compete not only with Redman and Bell, but also with attrition.

Last season, the Steelers kept six running backs on the final 53-man roster when you include fullback Will Johnson. That won't happen this year. Which means that at least one less running back position will be available.

The WVU product, Johnson was noted in OTAs and mandatory minicamp as showing maturation, increased ability to sustain his blocks and leadership. Add to that his pass-catching ability, Johnson was in the pass pattern 134 times last season and caught 15 balls for 137 yards in 22 targets, and you have a very viable 2013 roster candidate. - http://tinyurl.com/q8o44wu

Though he won't compete for a starting position, LaRod Stephens-Howling can run between the tackles, catch the ball out of the backfield and protect the passer - all of the things mentioned thus far. He also has the ability to return kickoffs, though I'm hoping that task is a Dunn deal elsewhere. He does, though, think he sees "a lot of third down opportunities that Todd Haley’s always had other places."

Last and maybe least is Baron Batch, likely the last running back on the depth chart, and the one likely to be on the outside looking in when Training Camp starts.

However this plays out once July 26 arrives, the Steelers will once again look to show the value they place on running backs and their running game.

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TIDBITS: Speaking of Pouncey...he apologized for his "Free Hernandez" hat - http://t.co/LqjjlibxzA

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The Steelers' Training Camp schedule, including practices open to the public and preseason games, per the Trib and the Steelers website:

Friday, July 26 — Players report; campus closed

Saturday, July 27 — 3 p.m. (Helmets and shorts)

Sunday, July 28 — 3 p.m. (Helmets and shorts)

Monday, July 29 — 3 p.m.

Tuesday, July 30 — Players off

Wednesday, July 31 — 3 p.m.

Thursday, Aug. 1 — 3 p.m.

Friday, Aug 2 — 7 p.m. at Latrobe's Memorial Stadium

Saturday, Aug. 3 ­— 3 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 4 — 3 p.m.

Monday, Aug. 5 — 3 p.m.

Tuesday, Aug. 6 — Players off

Wednesday, Aug. 7 — 3 p.m.

Thursday, Aug. 8 — 3 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 9 — Campus closed

Saturday, Aug. 10 — Preseason opener vs. N.Y. Giants, 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field

Sunday, Aug. 11 — Players off

Monday, Aug. 12 — 3 p.m.

Tuesday, Aug. 13 — Players off

Wednesday, Aug. 14 — 5:30 p.m. at St. Vincent College

Thursday, Aug. 15 — 3 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 16 — 3 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 17 — 3 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 18 — Break camp; campus closed

Monday, Aug. 19 — Preseason game at Redskins, 8 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 25 — Preseason game vs. Chiefs, 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field

Thursday, Aug. 29 — Preseason game at Panthers, 7:30 p.m.