If, as looks increasingly likely, embattled Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall does not return to the team next season, Pittsburgh will be left with a gaping hole at a critical position. Especially if the organization's coaching staff (and, if the rumors are true, owners) want to continue emphasizing the run in 2013.
Though Mendenhall’s off-the-field controversies are not likely to be missed in Pittsburgh, his production between the white lines might be. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2009 and 2010 and nearly topped that mark in 2011 before a blown ACL forced him out of the season’s final game.
But with Pittsburgh unlikely to pick up a quality back in free agency due to salary-cap issues, the Steelers will be forced to tap either Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer as the team’s starter for next season. Unless the team unexpectedly strikes it rich in the draft, fans can look forward to the uninspiring sight of seeing one of those two lining up behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger next September.
Given that both had similarly below-average seasons last year, Pittsburgh’s coaching staff probably will let competition on the field during training camp and the preseason make the choice for them. However, it is still not too early to analyze the two backs’ past performances and see which one deserves the inside track at securing the starting job.
At first blush, Dwyer would appear to be the clear choice based on his superior numbers. The running back started Pittsburgh Steelers" href="http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/pit/2012.htm">seven games and rushed 156 times for 623 yards and two touchdowns on the season. Per game, his stats average out to 12 carries for 47.9 yards. The three-year veteran ran for a solid (if unspectacular) 4.0 yards per carry and fumbled twice.
Over the course of the season, Redman ran 110 times for 410 yards—a rate of 3.73 yards per carry—scored two touchdowns and fumbled three times. He got significantly less work than Dwyer, starting only five games over the course of the 2012 campaign and averaging 7.9 rushes for 29.3 yards per game overall.
More importantly (given the question at hand), Dwyer also did better in the starting role. In those seven games, he rushed an average of Jonathan Dwyer" href="http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/D/DwyeJo00.htm">13.1 times for 60.4 yards. His yards per carry jumped to 4.6 in those contests. By contrast, Redman averaged 13.2 carries, 48 yards per game and 3.63 yards per carry when picked to start.
Upon closer inspection, however, Dwyer’s advantage as a starter is not so clear cut. The running back ran for 229 of the 423 yards he gained as a starter in just two of those seven games. Treating the output in those two contests as an aberration and excluding it from the calculations reduces his average numbers to 11.6 carries for 38.8 yards and 3.3 yards per carry.
Delving even deeper into the conventional numbers reveals other areas in which Redman was the more effective running back in 2012. On 1st-and-10 with the score within 14 points—arguably the purest measure of a team's or player’s ability to run the ball—Redman averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Dwyer managed only 4.0.
In situations calling for power (third or fourth down with less than three yards to go), Dwyer rushed for more yards on average (3.6 vs. 3.1). But Redman led in the more important statistical category: first downs attained. The latter moved the chains 11 times on 18 tries (61.1 percent), while his counterpart went 4-of-8 (50 percent). This means is that Redman was the more reliable (and more frequent) option when the team needed just a few yards. Though Dwyer broke more runs for longer gains on 3rd- or 4th-and-short, he also left the Steelers shy of the first-down marker more frequently.
Redman was also clearly the better receiver in 2012. He and Dwyer had about the same number of receptions last year (19 and 18, respectively), but Redman more than doubled his teammate’s total yardage. The 244 yards he gained on passes from Steelers quarterbacks gave him a healthy 12.8 yards per catch. By contrast, Dwyer’s 106 yards were only good enough for 5.9 yards per reception.
So based on the conventional numbers, the two backs appear about even as runners, with Redman perhaps holding a slight edge due to his ability to pick up first downs in short-yardage situations. He was much better than Dwyer as a receiver, though.
However, these statistics don’t always tell the whole story. Sometimes players with seemingly solid numbers are less effective than they appear, whereas others with worse basic statistics are secretly much more valuable. So what do advanced metrics have to say about the Steelers’ two choices at running back next year?
By those measures, Redman’s advantage widens.
Though Pro Football Focus rates the two backs nearly identically in their abilities to break long runs, protect the quarterback and hang onto balls thrown their way, the site ranked Redman 20 spots higher overall than Dwyer among running backs who played in at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps. This was largely due to the former’s aforementioned skill at catching passes out of the backfield, which accounted for nearly half of his overall positive score.
He also proved the harder back to take down in 2012, gaining 3.0 yards after contact per rush and causing 38 missed tackles on 118 touches. By contrast, Dwyer picked up 2.8 yards after contact per run and made only 21 defenders miss tackles on his 174 total touches.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Advanced NFL Stats, another site that analyzes NFL players and games using non-traditional metrics, gives pretty poor grades to both. According to that site’s calculations, each reduced the Steelers’ chances of winning games and scoring points every time they were on the field.
However, Redman hurt Pittsburgh less than Dwyer did. The former made the team one percent less likely to win each game in 2012. The latter, by contrast, reduced the Steelers’ chances by four percent. Likewise, Redman subtracted 0.02 points per play from Pittsburgh’s expected final tally when he was on the field, whereas every play involving Dwyer shaved 0.1 points from the team’s projected total for the game.
Football Outsiders similarly sees Redman as the lesser of two evils. The site’s analysts calculated that the Steeler gained 31 yards less than a replacement-level running back last year, whereas Dwyer gained 60 fewer than said imaginary back. Similarly, Redman’s Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) of -15 percent means he took away slightly less value per play from the Steelers offense than Dwyer did (-17.9 percent).
Based on the combination of a slight edge, according to the conventional numbers and decidedly higher rankings in the advanced metrics, Redman deserves to come into training camp as the prohibitive favorite to grab the starting spot.
However, given his lackluster performance last year, his job will be insecure from the first day of practice, and Dwyer is likely to have every opportunity to seize it. Redman will have to perform early and consistently if he wants to hold onto his spot with the first team through training camp and into the regular season.