No aspect of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense has seen a bigger recent decline in production than the running backs. Their struggles last season reached epic levels.
Out of 35 touchdowns scored by the offense, the running backs had just nine. In comparison, Baltimore running back Ray Rice had 10 of the Ravens’ 39 all by himself in 2012. The Steelers have not had a running back scoring double-digit touchdowns since Rashard Mendenhall in 2010, their last Super Bowl season (13 TDs).
A running game has been the elusive golden ticket that coach Mike Tomlin and team president Art Rooney II have searched for since the surprise success of Willie Parker in 2006 (16 TDs). But even that glimmer of a running game faded quickly. Parker couldn’t really find the end zone for the rest of his career. He scored just eight touchdowns over his last three seasons as a Steeler after suffering a leg injury – a fact that probably made it easier to let Mendenhall walk this off-season.
Mendenhall’s departure was one of the many changes to the RB corps. The Steelers added free-agent back La’Rod Stephens-Howling, a fifth-year pro who had five TDs last year for the Arizona Cardinals. Despite that, Stephens-Howling was added more for his abilities to return kicks. He may also provide a nice check-down option for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with his quickness and good hands.
Incumbent running backs Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch are also back. Redman slimmed down over the winter and seems determined to make an impression on the coaching staff. He already fills the role of short-yardage back and has shown the ability to catch the ball when needed. What he hasn’t shown is the ability to stay healthy. He only had five starts last year and 110 rushing attempts.
Batch and Dwyer are likely fighting for the final roster spot. Haley has mentioned Batch as player with a different skill set, but it is hard to imagine either he or Dwyer leading the offense in TDs this fall.
It’s even harder to imagine Tomlin will sit shiny new draft pick Le’Veon Bell enough to give Batch or Dwyer a chance to make an impact. The Steelers would love for instant success with former Michigan State star Bell. But will they hand off the starting job to the rookie second-round selection?
Bell will need to live up to expectations. He must be able to block at an NFL level as well as he can run the ball. Haley did call Bell a “three-down back whose pass-catching is a big asset,” and compared him to former Big 10 and NFL star Eddie George.
Bell says he models his game after Arian Foster and Stephen Jackson — two running backs which have led their offense in touchdowns for consecutive seasons.
So who is your choice to lead the Steelers in offensive touchdowns this year?
Wide receiver Antonio Brown won the most votes in our poll last week for who will have the most receiving TDs in 2013 (59%). Plaxico Burress (14%), an injured Heath Miller (9%), and Emmanuel Sanders (9%) followed.
Will a receiver who has just seven career TDs swoop in to replace former top playmaker Mike Wallace? Or will Bell fulfill his dream of becoming another Foster or Jackson? Isaac Redman and Emmanuel Sanders are in the mix – both are motivated to bring home a big contract next season, and TDs equal big money as Wallace can attest.
Who will lead the Steelers in offensive TDs in 2013? Steelers Nation awaits, as does the fantasy football world.