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2012 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp roster throwdowns: running backs

How far back would you have to go to remember a time when the Pittsburgh Steelers entered a National Football League season with so many questions about their running back situation? The mid-1980’s maybe and even that could be a stretch, but nevertheless, here we are in 2012 and there are plenty of question marks in the Steelers offensive backfield. So many that it looks as if The Riddler were back there….

Can Isaac Redman carry the load while Rashard Mendenhall gets back to 100% coming off  knee surgery? Who is the odd man out between Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay? Or is it both? Are Baron Batch and Chris Rainey too much alike to both make the roster? Sounding like a soap opera cliffhanger isn’t it?

As Matt Pappas and I start wrapping up the offensive positions, it’s time to take a look at the running backs in our series here at called “Roster Throwdowns.”

Rashard Mendenhall – While Mendenhall claims he will be ready to go by week one of the NFL season, the people ‘in the know’ claim that is just not going to happen. Considering he suffered the ACL injury in the final game of the season in Cleveland during the current year means Mendy is looking at another solid month or two before he returns to football action.

While stranger things have happened, I believe Mendenhall starts the year on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List for the first six weeks of the season.  I believe this is the best move for a couple of reason which I’ll get into shortly.

Isaac Redman - As is the case often with the back up QB, sometimes the back up running back garners great favor with the fans and this describes Redman perfectly. When the team was struggling to find a short yardage back, Redman became the man and thus a cult hero of sorts was born.

Back to reality… Redman is going to be relied on heavily this season and he showed at the very least in the playoff loss to Denver that he can carry the load in a game as he amassed 122 yards. My two questions are these; Can he do this over a four, five or six game stretch not to mention a full season? Secondly, I worry about his ball control. On more than one occasion Redman has lost the ball while carrying it and you cannot have a feature back putting it on the turf, period.

Either way, Redman starts 2012 as the number one back and that is about the only for sure thing we know at this point. Following him is a crap shoot. Or is it?

Jonathan Dwyer – While he carried the ball a whopping 16 times last year over three games, what Steelers’ fans remember is that 11 of those came against the Tennessee Titans in week five. Dwyer rushed for 107 yards that day and afterwards had people calling him ‘The Mini Bus.’

He entered camp in 2011 more like a double-decker bus as he was overweight and out of shape but he was able to survive and make the roster. Dwyer claims so far in this off-season to be in great shape and down several pounds but we won’t know until he arrives for camp in Latrobe. He has the ability to be a guy that can carry the ball five to ten times a game but I’m not sure he’ll ever be a team’s number one back.

John Clay – Clay enters 2012 having carried the ball last year even less than Dwyer but still has high hopes of making the roster. After a standout career at Wisconsin, Clay was thought to just not be quick enough for the NFL. His hard-nosed bruising style was nice, but his feet lacked the necessary quickness to excel in the league.

He will need to enter the season in better shape than Dwyer and hope that Dwyer struggles because I believe the team would chose him over Clay if all things were equal. Clay is not without ability so I will not doubt this guy one bit, but the deck is stacked against him right now.

Baron Batch – It seemed everyone around the Steelers was buzzing about this kid out of Texas Tech last year as training camp got underway. Although a seventh-round pick, he showed great quickness and good speed and picked up the blitzes well going toe-to-toe with James Harrison at times. And then his ACL gave out. Lost for the year was a potentially really nice young player, but now he’s back and ready to claim a spot.

Much like Clay, Batch has to battle against a guy who is very similar to himself in rookie Chris Rainey. Both are small and quick and show great promise as receivers, but Rainey clearly has the speed advantage so Batch must separate himself with his knowledge and quick wit to stay on the active roster.

Chris Rainey – Defensive End Brett Keisel I believe it was referred to Rainey as ‘lightning in a bottle’ following mini camp this summer. You don’t keep lightning bottled up either and the Steelers won’t. With Rainey’s ability as a return man, he will easily make this roster, but if Todd Haley can find ways to get the ball in his hands six to 10 times per game on offense then he becomes incredibly valuable.

Let’s not put Rainey in the Great Hall just yet because there is a lot more to playing for the Steelers than just having speed. The intangibles of blocking, picking up blitzes and recognizing audibles is crucial as well. If Rainey proves he is just as astute as Batch then watch out.

Analysis – Call it a hunch, but I just have a feeling the running game in Pittsburgh this year will be more effective than it has been in many years and I believe it is due to a number of factors. First of all, despite the pending youth of the offensive line, they will be better then what we have put on the field in recent years. More athletic and certainly nastier in my opinion. Secondly, Haley could have the ultimate ‘thunder and lightning’ situation with Redman and Rainey and if Mendenhall comes back strong by mid-season the Steelers could be downright dangerous carrying the ball. Lastly, with Mendenhall on the sidelines, the feature back is not in question. It will be Redman’s job to lose and I believe he’ll handle it well.

There’s a lot “ifs and buts” there but show me a team that doesn’t have those right now. Like I said, I just have this feeling this group of backs will thrive in a system where the coach knows how to exploit mis-matches.

Four RBs – Redman, Rainey, Dwyer, Batch. The X factor is Mendenhall. When does he return and how effective will he be? That will dictate how many backs the Steelers carry at that point.


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