The agony of preseason ran a familiar pattern in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 24-13 loss to Washington on Monday.
Running backs Le’Veon Bell (foot), Will Johnson (ribs), and Baron Batch (stinger) all exited with injuries. None hurt worse than the loss of prized rookie Bell, who may miss up to six weeks with a mid-foot sprain. The news could’ve been worse, as Bell’s injury appears to not be a lisfranc injury as first reported, the injury that knocked Maurice Jones-Drew out in 2012.
Bell’s injury opens the door for co-starter Isaac Redman to begin the season as the Steelers’ top back. But Redman will need to hold off the surging Jonathon Dwyer and surprising candidate LaRod Stephens-Howling to prove his fantasy football drafters bet on the right horse.
Redman has the edge over Dwyer with his ability to pass block, catch the ball and gain the tough short yards – likely why he and not Dwyer is listed as the first-string RB. Remember Redman’s big game against Tennessee last year when he had four receptions for 105 yards? His momentum stalled after he suffered an injury and was out for the next two weeks. When he returned against the New York Giants in Week 9, he ran for 147 yards on 28 carries, including a touchdown.
This past Monday night, the only healthy back in the competition was Dwyer. And he turned in a good performance against a tough Washington run defense. Dwyer got a nice workout, gaining 57 yards in the first half and another 11 in the third quarter. He showed off his new physique and improved speed with a big 23-yard gain. He never once went to the helmet for his signature tap-out through three quarters and 14 carries.
Neither Dwyer nor Redman have the vision and speed of offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s original scat back, former Cardinal Stephens-Howling. After injuries to Arizona’s top two backs last year, Stephens-Howling took over as starter. Behind the worse offensive line in the NFL in 2012 (yes, much worse than the Steelers’ front five), Stephens-Howling had as many 100-yard games as Dwyer (two).
Following the injuries to Bell and Redman in preseason Week 1, Stephens-Howling can’t be discounted as a legitimate fantasy running back contender. Dwyer watched from the bench as the 5-foot-7, 185-pound Stephens-Howling scampered for 40 yards on just seven carries for a 5.7 yards-per-carry average. Dwyer had a 4.9 average against Washington. Stephens-Howling seems to be a quick study in Haley’s offense and may be the best fit in the new screen and zone-blocking schemes.
Just like head coach Mike Tomlin, I am resting my hopes on the unknown. While health concerns have prevented Redman from hitting the field hard in preseason, I still think he will be the one toting the rock until Bell is 100 percent up and running.The Steelers runners have some tough match-ups early in the season with the likes of the Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens. Dwyer and LaRod Stephens-Howling will need to be charged and waiting for their opportunities.