The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t going out like lambs this March.
In recent years, the Steelers have bid a reluctant farewell to some of their most iconic veterans. They’ve said their share of goodbyes this March, as well, but no one’s shedding any tears. Rather, the water is flowing from the splash the Steelers have made in free agency.
Just the thing we’re conditioned not to expect from the Steelers in March.
Friday’s signing of free agent running back LeGarrette Blount puts an exclamation point on the Steelers’ endeavors in the free agent market this year. Blount joins safety Mike Mitchell, nose tackle Cam Thomas, wide receiver Lance Moore and linebacker Arthur Moats as new additions in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers have gone to three Super Bowls, winning two of them, since the turn of the century largely by building through the draft. Sure, there’s been the occasional James Farrior or Ryan Clark, but most of the Steelers’ free agent acquisitions through the years have been functional if not flashy. Sort of like getting socks for Christmas.
This year, however, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is coming down that chimney with a bag full of toys.
And the Steelers weren’t the only team waiting in line to snatch Blount off the shelves. The Baltimore Ravens were interested and the New England Patriots were trying to keep him, according to NFL.com.
Blount became a brand name after rushing for 166 yards and four touchdowns in the Patriots’ playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts. On that day, he became the type of free agent the Steelers just don’t get.
Not only did they get him, but they out-dueled their two most hated rivals to do it and looked past Blount’s baggage. The Steelers aren’t known for such brazen moves in free agency. But after two straight 8-8 seasons, something drastic had to be done.
Now, instead of Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones backing up Le’Veon Bell, it will be Blount. That’s what they call an upgrade.
The 6’0″, 250-pound Blount provides both a short-yardage complement to Bell and some insurance at the position. Much was made of Bell’s durability heading into his rookie season. Bell told Steel City Insider (subscription required) that he had never missed a game in college, high school, junior high or even youth football.
So guess what happened in the preseason? Bingo. He hurt his foot and missed the first three games of the regular season. While he played in all 13 remaining games, the Steelers still need someone who can carry the load as a starter if Bell gets dinged up again and has to sit out a game or two.
Blount started seven games last season, including the last four. Blount gained 354 of his 772 yards at an average of six yards per carry in those four starts. That doesn’t even count his playoff performance against the Colts.
Blount also replaces some of the red zone firepower the Steelers lost when Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Carolina Panthers.
The 27-year-old carried the ball seven times last season when the Patriots were at their opponent’s 5-yard line or closer, including the playoffs. He scored touchdowns on five of those carries. Bell, on the other hand, was handed the ball 19 times within five yards of the opponent’s end zone and scored on seven of those carries.
Bell and Blount were comparable in 2013 when it came to getting a first down in short-yardage situations. With three yards or less needed for a first down, Blount moved the chains on 21 of 33 of his carries (63.6 percent) and Bell got a first down on 25 of 40 opportunities (62.5 percent).
The Steelers’ second-round draft pick in 2013, Bell gained 860 yards last season and averaged better than four yards a carry in four of the last five games. He also caught 45 passes, which is almost twice as many receptions as the 23 Blount has had in his four-year career.
Bell is the Steelers’ unquestioned starter at running back. Overall, he’s more talented than Blount.
But when the Steelers are within spitting distance of their opponent’s end zone, Blount will be their man.
Who would have thought that the guy who trampled the Colts defense at Gillette Stadium in January would be a Steeler in 2014?