The Pittsburgh Steelers unveiled a shiny new running back in their 2013 preseason opener against the New York Giants.
Maybe at some point Le’Veon Bell will play, too.
LaRod Stephens-Howling, signed as a free agent from the Arizona Cardinals, led the Steelers with 40 rushing yards on seven carries in last week’s 18-13 loss to the Giants at Heinz Field.
Stephens-Howling, along with punter Brian Moorman, could provide the Steelers with the type of free-agent contributions they haven’t had in a couple of years.
Assuming Bell gets healthy, the Steelers won’t need Stephens-Howling to be their top rusher when the games count. They signed the former University of Pittsburgh running back to be their third-down back and possibly return kickoffs.
The 5’7”, 185-pound Stephens-Howling has the speed to be a flashier version of Mewelde Moore, the Steelers’ third-down back from 2008 to 2011.
The Steelers don’t build their team with expensive free agents. Instead, they try to find under-the-radar players who fill roles.
Moore was a textbook Steelers free-agent signing. He averaged 4.2 yards a carry and caught 98 passes in his four years as a Steeler. He also started four games for an injured Willie Parker in 2008. He ran for 120 yards in one of those games and 99 in another, ultimately helping the Steelers win their sixth Super Bowl that year.
Both of Mike Tomlin’s Super Bowl teams have benefited from a free-agent infusion.
Joining Moore in the Steelers’ 2008 free-agent class was linebacker Keyaron Fox, who was a special teams stalwart.
In 2010, Flozell Adams was signed in July when right tackle Willie Colon was lost for the season. Adams started every regular-season and playoff game and was instrumental in the Steelers’ Super Bowl run.
The Steelers didn’t get nearly as much bang for their buck with Jerricho Cotchery in 2011, although he still has a chance to make his mark. Tight end Leonard Pope and special-teamer Brandon Johnson are both gone after coming to the Steelers as free agents last season.
Since losing to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers haven’t won a playoff game. After their one-and-done debacle at Denver in 2011, they missed the playoffs last season.
There are plenty of reasons for this two-year malaise. The defense isn’t forcing enough turnovers and Ben Roethlisberger can’t stay healthy for a full season.
Stephens-Howling and Moorman, if he even makes the team, can’t fix those problems. However, a shot in the arm from free agents would be a step in the right direction.
After posting career highs in 2012 with four rushing touchdowns and 17 receptions, Stephens-Howling signed with the Steelers on April 26, his 26th birthday.
The Steelers felt Stephens-Howling’s explosiveness in a game at Arizona during the 2011 season. He took a pass from Kevin Kolb and ran about 70 of the 73 yards for a touchdown, narrowing the Steelers’ lead to 17-14 in the third quarter. The Steelers won the game 32-20 despite that play.
Stephens-Howling has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his career and led the NFL with 1,548 kickoff return yards in 2010.
If he can come close to that this season, and Moorman beats out Drew Butler, the Steelers’ 2013 free-agent haul will pack a lot of special teams punch.
The Steelers brought in Moorman to compete with Butler, who had a so-so rookie season. Butler ranked 28th in the NFL with 43.8 yards per punt. Moorman, who punted for the Bills and Cowboys in 2012, was 25th with a 44.6-yard average.
The 37-year-old Moorman, a two-time Pro Bowler, is winning the statistical battle so far in the preseason. He averaged 38.8 yards on four punts against the Giants and had a punt downed inside the 20. Butler averaged 24 yards on two punts and had a punt blocked. Moorman’s hang time also has been better than Butler’s, according to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
There’s also Guy Whimper, who the Steelers signed from Jacksonville for offensive line depth.
Whimper is like a fireman in that the Steelers hope they don’t need him, because it would mean one of their starting offensive tackles is injured. Whimper gave up a league-high 14 sacks in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus via The Sporting News. Any help the Steelers get from the 30-year-old would be a bonus.
And any help they get from Stephens-Howling and Moorman would be more than they’ve had from any free agent since 2010.