On Friday, July 27, 2012, there will be two important opening ceremonies. At 3 p.m. (EDT) the Steelers will open training camp with their first practice in helmets and shorts. An hour later, in London, there will be the pomp and hype of the 2012 Olympic Games. While I love cheering for the USA in the Olympics, I will also be keeping an eye on the Steelers. They are poised for another great season, but there are plenty of questions about the running game.
How Much Will the Steelers Run?
The Steelers brought in a new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, in the offseason. Sports writers are divided on whether Haley will introduce his Kansas City style rushing attack or his Arizona Cardinals aerial assault. When he was offensive coordinator in Arizona in 2007 and 2008, the Cardinals were #5 and #2 in passing yardage. Then, as head coach at Kansas City, Haley used the tandem of Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles to make the 2010 Chiefs the #1 rushing offense. Haley's past does not clearly predict his offensive preferences. Training camp and preseason will likely not answer the question, either. Haley will be evaluating talent, not game-planning. Haley, it seems, plays to the strengths of the team. While that would appear to be Ben Roethlisberger and the deep receiving core, I think Haley will find much to like in the running game, too.
Who Will Carry the Ball?
The Steelers starter for the last three seasons was Rashard Mendenhall. Last year, after amassing 228 carries and 18 receptions for over 1,000 combined yards, he injured his ACL in the last regular season game on January 1, 2012. The normal recovery for an ACL injury is a full year. Mendenhall will likely start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. That gives the Steelers until the 6th week of the season to decide if he can be activated this season. Since he is a free agent after the season, there is reasonable speculation that Mendenhall may have had his last carry as a Steeler. While he is a man with more spins than a clothes dryer, Mendenhall is talented and effective when the line creates a hole. He averaged 10 TDs per season. However, he was not a reliable short yardage/goal line pounder like fan favorite, Jerome Bettis. While many fans are ready to bid Mendenhall farewell, I think the Steelers want to see what else they have before saying good bye to such a well-rounded back.
When Mendenhall went down, Isaac Redman took over. He had combined 36 carries for over 210 yards in the last regular season game and the playoff loss to the Broncos. He is a hard-charging runner that keeps fighting after initial contact. I love his tenacity. But, with his running style and lack of experience being the primary carrier, I expect the Steelers will not lean on him as much as they traditionally have used their runners. Redman will get relief from a cast of complementary players.
Second year back Johnathan Dwyer is expected to back up Redman, if he follows up on his commitment to be in shape. The former "B back" in Georgia Tech's unconventional triple option has shown power, speed, and elusiveness. But he dropped to the 6th round in the 2011 draft because of weight problems. That struggle continued through last year's camp. He is a player to watch, if he comes in prepared to show his best. If he falters, John Clay is ready to take advantage.
John Clay scored a touchdown on his first Steeler carry against the St. Louis Rams last season. In college he played behind the road-grading Wisconsin Badger offensive line in the plodding Big Ten. He rumbled to some great numbers and showed good decision making and occasional power. To survive in Pittsburgh this season, he needs to have a great training camp (or have someone else stumble or get injured).
Former Texas Tech Red Raider Baron Batch was a 7th round pick in 2011. His college highlight reel shows that he is a shifty runner in the open field. His big plays are mostly inside draws from the spread formation. He finds the big holes and exploits them. He looks to be a decent receiving option out of the backfield, too. He doesn't have an NFL highlight reel because he injured his ACL in last year's camp. However, he showed enough that the Steelers kept him on injured reserve.
Chris Rainey also came from a spread offense at the University of Florida. However, his highlight package includes more conventional handoffs in a single back set. He also caught lots of passes out in the flat and turned them into big chunks of yardage. He has elite speed (#1 at the combine) and can return kicks and punts.
The Batch/Rainey competition may come down to who blocks the best. Batch was the star of last season's camp because of his work in blocking linebackers, especially James Harrison. If he is still a willing blocker after his injury, he may push Rainey to be primarily a return man. Both men, though, could add some exciting juice to the backfield on third down. To make them more effective, Haley will have to increase the number of passes to running backs. The Steelers only had 48 receptions by all running backs last season. Compare that to Darren Sproles (86) and Ray Rice (76).
Who is the Better Johnson?
The Steelers are planning to use a fullback this season. Former TE David Johnson is getting a chance at this new position. They also signed former West Virginia fullback, Will Johnson, after he impressed the coaches at West Virginia's pro day. I have never been very impressed with David's rumbling around the field, but maybe some concentrated work at fullback will help. However, I am hoping that Will Johnson is another diamond-in-the-rough, undrafted free agent for the Steelers (remember Willie Parker, James Harrison, and Isaac Redman?). The Steelers brought back the fullback, though, for one reason - to improve the running game.
This is the most inexperienced and least known backfield the Steelers have had for a long time. However, I am excited about their potential to be a real threat to defenses this season. It won't be one player that breaks out; it will be Todd Haley's smart combination of all their talents that will lift them to a top 15 rushing offense and the playoffs. Of course, the offensive line that will really determine if the Steelers will be able to bully their opponents at the line of scrimmage as needed. In my next camp preview, I will look at the big changes the Steelers are making with that unit.
Sean Durity is a Terrible Towel twirling Steelers fan living in Atlanta. He grew up cheering the 1970s dynasty and appreciates the organization's excellence even more as an adult. Follow him on Twitter @SeanDurity
More from this contributor:
Steelers Training Camp Schedule steelers.com
Rashard Mendenhall stats nfl.com
Isaac Redman stats steelers.com
Mark Kaboly, "Steelers' Dwyer intent on losing weight, increasing role" TribLive
Todd Haley coaching stats, pro-football-reference.com
2011 Pittsburgh Steelers team stats, pro-football-reference.com
2011 Receiving Leaders, pro-football-reference.com
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