With rookie running back Le'Veon Bell sidelined with a foot sprain that could keep him out for at least the first month of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers need to find someone else who can handle the starting job while Bell is out.
Based both on the 2012 season and what we've seen so far in the preseason, the best option seems to be crystal clear: Jonathan Dwyer. But, no, that is not to be; Isaac Redman will instead be the Steelers' starter while Bell is out.
This comes on the heels of Redman and Bell being listed as co-starters at running back in the Steelers' mid-August depth chart, despite Redman having played just two snaps in the preseason following a stinger he suffered in practice and despite Dwyer continuously having the heaviest running back workload.
Are the Steelers mistaken in naming Redman the starter while Bell rehabs his foot? Or is there a method to this madness?
Though the Steelers run game in 2012 was far less productive than usual, producing a total of just 1,537 yards (four running backs had more yards to their names than the Steelers did collectively) and averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, Dwyer was the leader of the group. He had 623 yards on his 156 carries, for a four yards-per-carry average and 47.9 yards per game. In comparison, Redman carried the ball 110 times for 410 yards and averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 29.3 yards per game.
In the preseason, Dwyer has been Pittsburgh's rushing leader, with 28 carries for 108 yards (and 45 yards after contact) through three games. Redman has been sidelined with injury, so it's hard to tell what he could have accomplished if healthy. However, Dwyer's recent weight loss seems to have provided him with added burst and he's been quite effective so far this summer.
If "the best ability is availability," and if Dwyer has had the best preseason, then Dwyer should have been named the interim starter.
However, the key to this decision can be found in the earlier announcement of Redman and Bell being co-starters in the team's Week 2 preseason game. Bell is still learning the finer points of pass protection and though he's progressed well, the hallmark of a true starting running back is the ability to do it all—run well both inside and out, catch passes and pass block.
Redman can do all three of these things, though Bell likely has the edge at the former two. In the latter, Redman exceeds Bell's skills and the result was the two being named co-starters. Dwyer, in contrast, is not considered much of a pass-blocker, which is why he wasn't given co-starting duties earlier in August nor why he has not been named the starter while Bell works his way back.
But is this an accurate representation of Dwyer and of Redman? According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 58 of Dwyer's 388 snaps last season were in pass protection, and Redman had 66 in his 315 snaps. Both graded plus-3.3 in pass protection, with each back allowing one quarterback hurry apiece along with no hits and no sacks. They were virtually identical.
How about in the passing game? With tight end Heath Miller sidelined for at least the first month of the regular season and no Bell for that span either, the Steelers will need their running backs to catch more passes. Last year, Redman was targeted 23 times for 19 receptions totaling 244 yards. Dwyer had a similar number of targets and catches—25 and 18 respectively—but they netted him just 106 yards. Redman's yards per reception for 2012 were 12.8, while Dwyer's were just 5.9.
This is one area that hasn't improved for Dwyer during the preseason, despite his marked explosiveness and lower weight. He's still catching most of what is thrown his way—seven of 10 targets—but those catches have yielded just 31 yards (and a touchdown), making his yards-per-reception average just 4.4.
The difference between Redman and Dwyer in the passing game is clearly what has given Redman the starting edge over Dwyer, not pass protection. And, further, this situation may play itself out as Redman being the starter in name only, with both he and Dwyer splitting rushing duties much as they did last year.
What also must be considered is that while we as spectators have seen next-to-nothing of Redman on the football field, his coaches have a far better idea of what he's capable of accomplishing as both a rusher and receiver this year. Redman, too, has dropped weight and improved his strength in order to be a better player this year and the effect could be similar to what we've been able to see from Dwyer, all with a heightened ability to pick up passing yards.
The key for the Steelers this year is to run better, regardless of who is tasked with doing so. They'll need to, because of Miller's injury, because it will help save quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's always jeopardized health and because it suits offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system.
Whether that means Redman is the starter, while Bell continues to rehab his foot, and Dwyer gets the most carries or vice-versa, the goals are the same: Run better and win games.