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Black n' Gold Blitz : Steelers Training Camp Battles - Running Backs

By Kipper @pghsportsforum
Ladies and Gentlemen, the time has FINALLY come. The Steelers are reporting to Latrobe, PA today and will be checking into their St. Vincent dorm rooms as they prepare for "Camp Tomlin" yet again. My first inclination was to do one big article diagraming all of the training camp battles that the Steelers have ahead of them, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that each battle in itself needed its own attention, because each is as important as the next. However, if I were to rank them in importance, this one would be at the pinnacle. The running back battle that is about to get started will be second to none when it comes to sheer competition. The job could go to a number of individuals. I dissect each one, and then tell you who I think will be the starting Running Back for the Steelers as they head into Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans on September 8th at Heinz Field.
Now for the candidates (In order of experience):
#34 - LaRod Stephens- Howling - 5th Year - The "skat" back that played his college football at PITT has returned to the South Side as a free agent signing with the Steelers. Stephens-Howling (SH since I don't feel like typing that over and over again) has a great shot at making this team as a truly versatile football player. Not only can SH return kickoffs and punts, but has the speed that if given space...he can take it the distance. When the Steelers cut Chris Rainey, LaRod SH is picking up where the youngster left off. I feel that SH can not only make this team, but make an impact on this a return man, and as a potential 3rd down back. This "change of pace" back could be what the doctor ordered for Todd Haley's quick pass offense and trying to get SH outside the tackles into open space where he can do the most damage.
#33 - Isaac Redman - 4th Year - In the "stable" of running backs, Redman has the most game experience of them all. He made a name for himself in the preseason when he was given the moniker "Redzone" Redman for his tenacious running style and ability to get the "tough" yards. Redman had a golden opportunity last year when Rashard Mendenhall was going to miss a significant portion of the season rehabbing a knee injury, therefore making Redman to starter. Injuries and a poor offensive line held Redman back from playing to his full potential. Nonetheless, all reports out of the Steelers facility is that Redman has cut weight and is looking to be in the best shape of his relatively young career. Will Redman be able to ward off his counterparts to take claim as the starter? He has as good a shot as anyone, in my opinion.
#27 - Jonathan Dwyer - 4th Year - Dwyer and Redman eventually turned into a running back tandem last season, but it wasn't bringin back memories of Franco and Rockey Bleir. Instead it had SteelerNation clamoring for SOMEONE to step up and take the job. Dwyer showed signs of brilliance, and signs of sheer stupidity. Being benched for a week by Coach Tomlin due to a lack of effort shows that this young man has a lot of growing up to do. However, that week off woke up Dwyer, and like Redman, experienced a lot of nagging injuries that prevented him from staying in the lineup and getting into any type of rhythm with his line. Dwyer is listed on the current depth chart as the number 1 back, but this is an open race and one that a lot of people think is Dwyer's for the taking. Whether he takes it or not, well that's a different story, and completely up to him.
#20 - Baron Batch - 3rd Year - The man who made a name for himself as a rookie taking on the likes of James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley in the "backs on backers" drill, suffered a devastating knee injury that lost him the remainder of his rookie season. Coming off injury expectations were high, but Batch was never viewed as a starting RB, but more so as a 3rd down back that can block well, catch out of the backfield, and also has the versatility to play Special Teams. Batch has nearly become as popular for his artwork / blog as he has for playing football for the Steelers. Still, he has a chance to make this roster and turn some heads in some capacity.
#26 - Le'Veon Bell - Rookie - This young man might be the biggest wrinkle in the Steelers RB discussion for many reasons. First, the Steelers drafted him out of Michigan State in the 2nd round. Second, he is an unproven commodity. Say what you want, but NO ONE knows if Bell can play at the NFL level, as a rookie. I don't think the question is whether he can or cannot play at the NFL level, but can he be an impact player right away...that is the question. I personally think that this young man is set up to be that impact player the offense needs at the RB position. Will he be the starter in Week 1? That's highly unlikely at this point, but it will be interesting to watch how the coaching staff handles his carries in camp, and especially in the preseason games. Whoever said preseason games are meaningless doesn't follow their favorite team like I do. They tell you a lot about what the coaches think and for Le'Veon Bell they will be gigantic games. Bell will have to work his way up the ranks, as nothing is given but earned in the NFL.
#39 - Curtis McNeal - Rookie - Drafted out of USC, the 5'7" 191lbs RB has a tough road ahead of him. Not only did the Steelers select another RB in the 2nd round, but you can see the experience that stands in front of him and possibly making this team. At this stage of the game, and if everyone stays healthy, McNeal is most likely playing for the practice squad. Sometimes all it takes is one injury or one big play or one drill that really makes someone stand out, and that pressure is going to be on Rookies like McNeal starting tomorrow at St. Vincent College.
Who Wins the Battle:
In this intriguing battle for the starting Running Back position a lot comes down to intangibles that no random observer can possible begin to piece together, but don't worry...I'll give it my best shot. As I said earlier, a lot will be said about the number of carries the RBs get with the #1s in the preseason. Mike Tomlin is a traditionalist in this area. Expect Jonathan Dwyer to get the first crack at the starting position, with Isaac Redman following suit after him. That doesn't leave a lot of carries for Le'Veon Bell and the rest of the gang...except for repetitions with the backup QB, OL, and WR core. I will say that sometimes producing in the second half of preseason games can boost your chances of seeing more playing time next preseason game, or even into the regular season. In my estimation, the following RBs will make the roster, all in some capacity: Isaac Redman, Le'Veon Bell, LaRod Stephens-Howling, and Baron Batch. LaRod Stephens-Howling and Baron Batch will predominantly be used as Special Teams players and the occasional 3rd down back. A lot of you might read this and say "What?! You think Jonathan Dwyer is going to get cut?!" Well, yes, I do think that, but I also think that Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are interchangeable. Simply meaning that I only see ONE of them making the team as the other is sent looking for a new destination in their NFL career. I think Isaac Redman (when healthy) is the more effective runner and combined with the young Le'Veon Bell could be a fantastic 1-2 punch and not forcing Bell into a starting role earlier than his progression would naturally allow.

So, what do you think? Am I off my rocker on this one, or do you agree? Who comes out of camp as the starting running back of the Pittsburgh Steelers?
Next up on my Training Camp Battles - The Wide Receivers

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