As the season moves along for the Steelers we might be finding ourselves in the middle of a running back controversy in Pittsburgh. Now, by controversy I don’t mean something that necessarily divides the team like a quarterback controversy can but rather who Mike Tomlin will start vs who everybody else (including the players and coaches) thinks should start.
So far we’ve seen all 5 ball carriers on the roster getting snaps in game situations, mainly because coach Kirby Wilson has been playing musical chairs with his ball carriers. I’m sure OL Coach Sean Kugler has given him a few pointers on that. Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer have all started in at least 2 games this season, which is pretty interesting considering the Steelers have only played 8 games so far.
During Mike Tomlin’s weekly press conference this week the subject of the running backs of course came up but Tomlin didn’t exactly specify who was going to start on Monday night when the Chiefs come into Pittsburgh. Much of it will be determined by who is healthy enough to go, which at this point that appears to be both Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. Second year man Baron Batch will likely see action, and rookie Chris Rainey’s status is still up in the air right now. Rashard Mendenhall is beginning light work but he is probably at least a week away yet.
So that begs the question, if the Steelers ever do get Mendenhall and everyone else healthy, who is the starter and why? Depending on whom you ask you’ll get different answers but ultimately it’s up to Mike Tomlin.
If you ask Tomlin, he’ll give you the following according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Rashard Mendenhall no longer is the clear-cut starting halfback. Tomlin made that clear without offering names when asked how he would use his backs when all are healthy.
“Whoever’s being productive when healthy is going to get the totes. I really think it’s that simple. I’m not going to make it any more complex than it has to be. “At times this season we’ve had a running back-by-committee approach because none of them had been overly effective at that time. When someone’s effective, they’ll get the ball.”
Isaac Redman has a different take, as per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: ”Tomlin said ‘I’m going to stay with the hot hand.’ I had a pretty good game, Dwyer will be back this week, we’ll both get carries. I’m not sure about Rashard [Mendenhall's] status. I don’t know if he means the ‘hot hand’ is if you get two-yards on your first carry the next guy’s up. I don’t know. I’m just going to go out there and play hard. If that’s what the coaches feel. I’m not a coach so I’m not going to sit here and say who should be the starting running back or not.”
Then there’s Jonathan Dwyer’s take, per Ed Bouchette: “I mean, Rac is the guy,” said Dwyer, referring to Mendenhall by his nickname. “Rac has been here for years, and they drafted him in the first round to be a starter. That’s his room and we complement him.”
Lest we forget Kirby Wilson, the man who is coaching all of these players (courtesy of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Rashard is the complete package — power, speed, explosiveness,” Wilson said. “He is the guy who can take a 10-yard run and make people miss and get 20 more. We think Jonathan has things that he is great at. Isaac has some things that he is great at. But Rashard is the complete package. Rashard has proved that he can do it over the long haul.”
Kirby did say that whoever is doing the best will get the most carries, but it’s clear he feels Mendenhall is the man.
Like we said, Tomlin will decide ultimately who is doing what and when; and injuries will continue to play a part in that I’m sure just as they have all year so far. Isaac Redman brings up a good point though, what exactly determines “the hot hand”?
If you have a good series or two, are they going to just keep whoever is on the field, on the field? Or do you need to have a good half, or maybe a good complete game?
I would venture an educated guess that whoever starts; if they are showing that they are capable of carrying the load then they’ll stay in. It won’t necessarily be whoever has the most first downs or touchdowns. If Tomlin starts seeing them getting caught at the line, or not seeing the blocking and choosing the wrong hole to run through, then they would give way to whoever is the “next man up”.
That only seems logical to me but all of that of course depends on how well the offensive line is blocking too; which so far over the last 3 weeks they’ve been more than holding their own. The bottom line is though, the ground has 3 100+ yd performances in row now and that trend must continue for the Steelers to execute their offense to the best of their ability, and that will help translate into wins.
It’s going to be interesting how Tomlin, Todd Haley, and Kirby Wilson use their personnel the rest of the way out (assuming that injuries don’t make that decision for them). One thing I can say with a fair amount of certainty just knowing how the NFL works; you will not see Mendenhall, Dwyer, and Redman all in the Steelers backfield next year.
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