Going into the 2012 season running back Jonathan Dwyer had no idea what the year would bring. With Rashard Mendenhall coming off an ACL injury, Isaac Redman opened the season as the starter and Dwyer took over the number two spot.
As expected Dwyer saw limited action the first three weeks of the season, but was then inactive weeks four and five after a healthy Mendenhall returned to the lineup. Injuries soon thrust him into the spotlight, and Dwyer made his first NFL start against Cincinnati on Oct. 21 and responded with a career high 122 yards on 17 carries. The next week he got the nod against Washington, rattling off 107 yards on 16 carries.
A quad injury slowed him down the following week, and the running back carousel continued to turn with Redman and Mendenhall starting for an ineffective ground game the next four weeks. It was then that Coach Mike Tomlin shook things up prior to the Steelers' Nov.16 game against the Baltimore Ravens, moving Dwyer ahead of Mendenhall and Redman on the depth chart where he would remain until season's end.
Dwyer finished the season as the team's leading rusher, but the ground game continued to struggle down the stretch run and he finished with only 661 yards. He knows he can do better.
"I don't think I have scratched the surface of where I am as a player," said Dwyer, who welcomed his first child, Jonathan, Jr., into the world on Feb. 20. "I don't think I am where I want to be, or anywhere where I am capable of being. I am proud of what I accomplished last season and the work I put into it, what I did to achieve what I did. I just have to work harder and do better than last season."
Dwyer definitely saw areas of growth in his game last year, taking advantage of the playing time to become a more complete player, particularly picking up on the nuances that are needed from the backs in the passing game.
"The passing game is one area where I definitely improved, being able to catch the ball, go out on routes and play better in pass blocking and blitz pick up," said Dwyer. "I can run the ball, but in this league that is not all they are looking for. They are looking for an every down type of guy, guys that can pick up the blitz and make plays in the passing game."
Dwyer would like nothing more than to open the 2013 season as the team's starting running back, but the position is full of uncertainty as both he and Redman will become restricted free agents and Mendenhall an unrestricted free agent in March.
"Any running back wants to be the feature guy," said Dwyer. "The situation we were in last year, we couldn't just sit one of us. We all bring something different to the team, to the running and passing game, all aspects of it. I just have to work even harder than I did before to have that opportunity to start again. I have to be a better player and do everything I can to help the team win."
He is focusing this offseason on improving in many areas, including his speed and conditioning, an area he realizes he has to focus on.
"I know I can be better conditioned," said Dwyer. "That is one of the big things right now. I think you underestimate it and then realize the season is long and takes a toll on your body. You have to be in the best shape you possibly can. That is the only way you are going to make it through.
"It's up to me if I can be that elite guy or just some average guy. It's going to be all up to me this offseason."