Just over a week ago, the Steelers running back situation looked like it was on life support. Isaac Redman wasn’t practicing with a sore groin, Jonathan Dwyer wasn’t working out either and Rashard Mendendhall is not near ready to return from this ACL injury from last year. The Steelers went out and signed Jason Ford out of Illinois to help at least get some healthy bodies in camp and to play in preseason. Things weren’t looking so good, health wise, for a team trying to reestablish their identity in the running department.
The coaching staff is doing their best to put an emphasis on the run game so far, but it’s not just to get the backs experience but rather it’s a new mindset that Todd Haley brings. He wants to run the ball and whoever is on the roster is going to do just that. In the preseason so far the Steelers have a 75-53 run to pass ratio, that’s 58.6% running as Ed Bouchette points out. With all that running, the young stable of ball carriers is getting valuable experience so far.
Can 2nd year man Baron Batch and rookie Chris Rainey carry the load? The jury may still be out on them but they are improving each week. Neither of them has any NFL experience and both are on the smaller side compared to your traditional Steeler type backs (Batch 210 lbs, Rainey at 180 lbs). How long would Redman be out, would the MRI reveal significant damage? What about Dwyer, when was he going to return? Things seem to have a way of working themselves out for the Steelers either with young players stepping up or newly signed players catching on quickly enough to be productive.
On the injury front, Redman had the MRI and he should be back this week to practice. Dwyer returned to practice late last week and looked very good in the preseason game against the Colts on Sunday night, rushing 8 times for 43 yds. Rashard Mendenhall is off the PUP list now but he’s not likely to return until well into the regular season. Still with all that, the young backs on the roster seem to have things well in hand. Yeah, I know, it’s only preseason. Well you have to start somewhere and these guys are taking advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given so far.
Assuming Isaac Redman is ready to go in week one, both he and Dwyer are your likely starters. Even though neither has any starting experience, they both played last season and Redman was the primary backup to Rashard Mendenhall. His short yardage excellence paved the way for the opportunity he’s been given for the upcoming season. You don’t have to have a ton of previous experience to be effective in the NFL and only way to get that experience is to play. Redman has been patient the last 2 years behind Mendenhall, just coming in and doing his job and then giving way again to #34. He’s excited about this chance to start and the coaches feel he’s earned it with not only his performance on the field but also his team attitude and work ethic.
Chris Rainey, the smurf sized back that plays runs with the authority of a tank and the nimbleness of a deer had himself a very productive training camp and 2 solid outings in the preseason games to date. In the Eagles game, he had 65 yds in receptions plus a touchdown on a 57 yd pass that showcased what he can do when he gets his hands on the ball. Much like Mike Wallace, once Rainey gets going there’s not a defender in the league that will be able to keep up with him. On Sunday night against the Colts, he had 6 rushes for 20 yds and while that might not be something to write home about, he was used in a different way in that game.
Todd Haley had him running between the tackles more often than not so every one of those 20 yds was earned. Plus he was in on pass protection as well and out in some pass patterns. They are throwing everything they can at him and so far he’s responding quite nicely.
Baron Batch had 41 yds rushing vs the Colts and 19 against the Eagles. Again, nothing stellar here but they are building up momentum each week, piling more responsibility on these young guys. Remember too there’s only so many carries to go around per game. Batch has a knack for solid blocking in blitz pickup and has good hands. He runs with some power too for a guy 210 pounds coming off an ACL tear last year. He’s basically a rookie, learning as he goes but so far he’s shown flashes of solid, tough running.
Then there’s the “mini bus” as designated by Chris Collinsworth of NBC on Sunday night. He was referring to recently signed Jason Ford out of Illinois. The 250 lb back reminds you of Jerome Bettis with his running style of punishing defenders but also he’s got some nifty feet as well. His low center of gravity allows him to burst throw holes in the blocking and get to the 2nd level where he can do some damage. He’s raw and has much to learn but in limited action last night he had 8 carries for 42 yds, second only to Dwyer on the night for the team lead in rushing.
Throw in a healthy Jonathan Dwyer who looks trim, sleek, but still powerful and a returning Isaac Redman and the Steelers backfield isn’t in near as much trouble as one might have thought not too long ago. I’m not saying that I won’t have some concern if Rainey or Batch has to start this season, but I would say that I would be cautiously optimistic that they could function in the offense and at least help carry the load in the ground attack. Raw and inexperienced doesn’t always mean that it can’t be done. Good NFL players respond when challenged and time will tell if the young backfield has what it takes when their number is called.