32 Questions in 32 Days: Pittsburgh Steelers

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Pittsburgh Steelers Felix Jones

Aug 29, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers Felix Jones (23) runs the ball during the third quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers defeated the Steelers 25-10. Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

As we count down to the NFL season, XN Sports will be bringing you 32 questions in 32 days. Each day, we’ll feature one of the most important questions for a different NFL team heading into the opening weekend of the league.

Today’s feature team and question?

Pittsburgh Steelers – Can the running game improve?

For years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had good production out of their running backs. Behind players such as Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, and Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers backs’ have churned out plenty of 1,000-yard seasons over the past 15 years.

It wasn’t long ago that Mendenhall was considered the team’s running back of the future. In 2011, he failed to crack 1,000 yards, but still averaged more than four yards per attempt and added nine touchdowns. Instead of coughing up the ball three times in six games as he did last year, he fumbled only once in 15 contests in the previous season. From 2009 to 2011, Mendenhall averaged over four yards per carry and more than 1,100 yards per season. With 30 total touchdowns over that span as well, the back gave the Steelers’ running game a much-needed boost.

In 2012, though, the run game struggled. Mendenhall was plagued by injury and poor play last season and never got on track. Recovering from an ACL injury, he missed most of last season – and when he played, the results weren’t pretty. Mendenhall didn’t have a 100-yard game in the six contests he played and finished a disappointing season with 51 carries for only 182 yards and a 3.6 yard-per-carry average. The running back didn’t register a rushing touchdown and combined with a brief suspension, that was enough to earn him a ticket out of town. The running back will now try to make a name for himself out in Arizona with the Cardinals after the Steelers decided to go in another direction.

Jonathan Dwyer picked up the slack in his absence, receiving the bulk of the carries while Mendenhall was out of action. With an average of 4.0 yards per carry and 623 yards, the running game was nothing special. Dwyer had only two touchdowns and the unit as a whole had only eight rushing scores. Dwyer, like Mendenhall, also won’t be returning as he was cut during the preseason this year.

The Steelers ranked near the bottom of the league last season. Behind mostly Dwyer, Mendenhall, and Isaac Redman, the team averaged a meager 96.1 yards on the ground per game in 2012. Things can’t much worse, but with the departures of Mendenhall and Dwyer, the Steelers have plenty of questions entering this year.

Pittsburgh addressed the glaring hole at running back by drafting Le’veon Bell out of Michigan State in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Bell was expected to be the starter but has missed a significant portion of the preseason with a sprained foot. Initial reports had him missing six to eight weeks, but there’s hope that he is able to return a bit sooner than expected. When Bell returns, expect him to have a chance to become the starter.

Meanwhile, the Steelers added free agent Felix Jones to help. The veteran, however, has never really looked like a great every down back. He was serviceable in playing alongside backs like Marion Barber, but the jury remains out on if he can handle a full-time load having never rushed for more than 185 attempts in his career.

With Bell out, a secondary option is the aforementioned Redman – but he’s also known mostly as a backup. In three seasons with the Steelers, he’s produced 1,136 yards in spot duty and has even less experience in handling a full-time load than Jones does.

Lastly, there’s Arizona transplant LaRod Stephens-Howling. LSH adds a different element to the team as a quality third-down back. His size and quickness allows him to elude tacklers and he can catch a lot of balls out of the backfield. However, as in the cases of Jones and Redman, he doesn’t have the reputation as an every down back.

Until Bell gets healthy, Pittsburgh could rely on a running back-by-committee approach if Jones isn’t anything special. Additionally, even when Bell returns there will be questions about the unit. He’s missed out on valuable reps in preseason games and there will be an obvious adjustment period once he gets on the field.

It’s difficult to envision the running game getting much worse than it was last year, but at this point, it won’t be significantly better.

Anson Whaley is a freelance writer with more than 16 years of experience. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and a current member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA). Mr. Whaley has also been a credentialed member of the media for various events.
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