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Time for Steelers to embrace change in the running game

When it comes to things you can set your clock you by in sports, you can all but guarantee that NFL fans will jump on the bandwagon of a young player who performs well in a big game. It’s no different for Steelers fans as we continue to endure the changing of the guard at key positions for our team.

It’s not wrong to jump on the bandwagon so to speak, when a guy like Jonathan Dwyer rushes 17 times for 122 yds; playing a major role in the Steelers win over the Bengals, 24-17. Some will say, “Well there’s other guys that are more established”, or “it’s not uncommon for a new face to have a big impact for one game”. That type of thinking gets you in trouble in today’s sports.

Now, far be it from me to knock a team with 6 Super Bowls here but times are changing, and “The Steeler Way” could use a little tweaking in my opinion.  There are many ways we could focus on why but for now we’ll stick to the most recent development; Dwyer’s big performance against Cincinnati in week 6.

If you go by past experience, then regardless of what Dwyer did last week and what he might do this coming Sunday against the Bengals; he’ll be back on the bench sooner rather than later. Now I’m not necessarily saying that #27 is the second coming of #36 just yet, but when Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman both come back, let’s not relegate him back to headphone duty on the sidelines right away.

Looking at the stats it’s easy to tell who’s been the most successful this year so far:

Dwyer: 41 carries, 192 yds, 4.7 average
Mendenhall: 19 carries, 74 yds, 3.9 average
Redman: 50 carries, 107 yds, 2.5 average, 1 TD

Now, we can rationalize this any way we want: Mendenhall has only played in 2 games; Redman has played in every game with the exception of last Sunday but has been fighting injuries. You can say that the offensive line hasn’t been healthy, or the offense is still finding it’s sea legs, it’s a pass happy league, etc. but the fact is Dwyer played well in a big game and deserves a shot to continue that success.

Injuries are a part of the game and as Mike Tomlin says “next man up, the standard is the standard”. Well so far the standard in the ground game has been set pretty low, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Also for what it’s worth, at his press conference today, Tomlin not specify a pecking order at running back next Sunday when the Redskins come to Heinz Field, other than to say “we’ll see”.

Everyone likes to use the cliché` that the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” league, but in reality the Steelers don’t play by that line of thinking very often. Yes, there are times when you stick with a veteran returning from an injury, as is the case with Ben Roethlisberger. The difference is that Ben is head and shoulders better than both Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. No disrespect to either one but we all know Ben is elite so if he gets hurt, he’s the man when he gets back.

That’s not the case with the running backs though. Rashard Mendenhall has the experience to back up his claim as the starter, and that’s fine. However, I find it hard to believe that Isaac Redman is that much better than Dwyer is.

Considering the struggles of Redman this year until Mendenhall returned to the lineup, there should be no guarantee that he is the #2 guy for at least the time being. Dwyer may have only played one game as the starter, but the line of thinking that “maybe the ground attack would be better if Dwyer had more snaps” is legitimate. Besides, competition breeds success, so having 3 guys fighting it out for more playing time can likely yield positive results on gameday.

I’m not an Isaac Redman hater, I’m a fan of the Steelers and a fan of winning games no matter who is playing. There are precious few chances each season and each loss could be the dagger in your playoff chances down the road.  So if potential success mean that means Dwyer starts over Redman, so be it. If Redman plays better when he comes back, that’s great. The same goes for any position on the team. All I want to see another Lombardi Trophy in Pittsburgh and if that means the hot hand taking the lead over his teammate, that’s life in the NFL.

Nothing is guaranteed from one week to the next, and for all we know Dwyer could start against the Redskins and struggle, but he could also start and have another 100 yd performance. There’s no way to find out for sure unless you give him the chance; and besides it’s not like his predecessors have been lighting up the stat sheet either.

Why not buck the trend and go with the hot hand; if it helps you win games then that is the bottom line, not an allegiance to another player just because. We’ve seen some movement in that direction this past offseason when the Steelers cut ties with aging veterans like Hines Ward and James Farrior. More of those cuts are likely to happen this coming offseason as the young talent hopefully begins to emerge.

Jonathan Dwyer was brought onto this team to contribute, and he’s come a long way in his young career. Who knows what he could accomplish if given the chance to regularly contribute. We’ll see what the Steelers do come gameday but as long as they win, that’s the bottom line in professional sports.

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