Can you feel it? The Pittsburgh Steelers will report to Latrobe on Friday for the start of training camp, and we will finally have a lot of daily practice reports to talk about. With time ticking down, we will now move on to talk about the running back training camp battle that will take place over the next several weeks. This positional battle figures to be the best of them all as four players will likely be battling for the three roster spots. You can comment on this battle below and make sure that you also vote in the attached poll.
Training Camp Battle Setup: The Steelers running game was atrocious last year. Rashard Mendenhall never was 100% physically or mentally for starters and the offensive line once again suffered their share of injuries. From one week to the next, it seemed like the starting job was up for grabs. The Steelers addressed the position during the 2013 NFL Draft by drafting Michigan State running back Le\’Veon Bell in the second round. Bell is the future and possibly even the present, but he will need a supporting cast just the same. The four players who appear to be battling for three available roster spots on the 53 man roster are Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Baron Batch.
Jonathan Dwyer – Dwyer led the Steelers in rushing last year with 623 yards and that equated to a 4.0 yards per carry average. In addition, he topped the 100-yard mark twice in the middle of the season thanks in part to the offensive line being able to gel some between all the injuries that it incurred.
Over the years, Dwyer has become a more than adequate pass protector, and while he is not a huge threat out of the backfield as a receiver, he did chip in 18 receptions in 2012 for another 106 yards of offense.
The biggest knock on Dwyer ever since he was drafted is his level of conditioning at the start of training camp. The last two offseasons have included him training down in Florida, so we will have to wait and see if the Georgia Tech product comes into camp a little trimmer than he was several weeks ago when the Steelers wrapped up their offseason practices.
The Steelers change in offensive philosophy this year as it pertains to the running game will consist of more outside zone to go along with the traditional inside zone and power traps that we have come accustomed to seeing over the years. The Steelers want their running backs to be more athletic and decisive with their reads and cuts than ever before, and that is something we will all be looking for during the preseason from not only Dwyer, but the other running backs on the roster as well.
As far as special teams play goes, Dwyer has never been a huge contributor in that area, and he will certainly need to improve some if he is going to make the roster.
Isaac Redman – Redman was given every opportunity to be the featured back last year right from the start but nagging injuries resulted in him missing two games and in the end, he finished the season with 410 yards rushing and a 3.7 yards per carry average.
Redman has worked on his conditioning during the offseason and that included him working with a speed trainer. The results from his offseason work were obvious as he showed up for the offseason practices noticeably trimmer than he was last season.
Redman, like Dwyer, is generally considered a power back and that power is evident when the Steelers need a yard or two for a first down or when they get into goal-to-go situations. Whether or not Redman can adapt to more of the outside zone concepts that we expect to see this season is yet to be seen, but you can expect he will be given plenty of chances to show just how nimble he is during the preseason.
Redman is more than adequate as a pass protector and his 46 career receptions shows that he can be an option out of the backfield should the need arise.
As far as his special teams play goes, like Dwyer, Redman needs to improve in this area as backup running backs more times than not have to play on a few of the units.
LaRod Stephens-Howling – The Steelers signed Stephens-Howling, a former University of Pittsburgh product, during the draft after four pretty uneventful seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. While Stephens-Howling certainly isn\’t an every down back, he can run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. As far as his pass protection goes, he is adequate in that area even though he is extremely undersized, as he possesses a thick build.
One of the main areas that Stephens-Howling can contribute in 2013 is on kickoff returns as he has a 25.0 yard per return average via 163 returns during his career. Should he not win the return job in training camp; however, he becomes just another running back on the roster and very expendable. The Steelers don\’t want to have to use starting wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown as return men if they can help it, so it appears to be Stephens-Howling\’s job to lose heading into training camp.
Baron Batch – Batch is coming up on the two-year anniversary of the knee injury that he suffered during his rookie season. While he is a well put-together running back, that\’s pretty tough, he struggled to run the football between the tackles last season.
Of all the backup running backs on the Steelers roster, Batch will benefit the most from the use of more of the outside zone, as he is a running back that functions best out in space. However, he must show improvement in the power running game as he will occasionally need to run between the tackles ever now and again.
Batch is incredibly smart and good at reading defenses when it comes to pass protection in the backfield. This was evident more than a few times last season, and he is not afraid to take on a free-running blitzer when the need arises.
During the four seasons that he played at Texas Tech, Batch registered 140 catches for 1,111 yards in a wide-open offense, so he can be a threat in the passing game if used more in that area. He did have an unforgivable drop last year that would have gone for an easy touchdown and that simply can\’t happen again. As previously mentioned, Batch is good out in space with the ball in his hands and he is perhaps one of the best route running backs that the Steelers currently have on their roster.
Batch is more than adequate on special teams, and he will have to be again this year if he is going to make the final 53 man roster. If he should wind up being cut, he might have to consider becoming a full-time artist and food connoisseur.
Prediction: The only thing that we know for sure right now is that Bell is a lock to make the roster. He will hopefully be the starter in Pittsburgh for several years to come and whether or not he starts the season opener depends on how fast he can adapt to the Steelers offense as well as his ability to block. The Steelers will more than likely only keep four running backs and one fullback on the 53 man roster so that leaves three spots for these four players to fight over during training camp over. You have to like Stephens-Howling\’s chances of making the team as a return man, so that leaves us with three players fighting for the remaining two spots. Both Redman and Dwyer are scheduled to each earn $1.323 million in 2013 and the Steelers more than likely would like to free up some cap space by getting out from underneath one of those contracts. Batch is the wildcard here, and if he can show during training camp that he can be more of a complete back, I have a feeling that Dwyer could very well wind up being the odd man out when the dust settles. This should be the single best positional battle during training camp this year, and it will be fun to watch it play out.