Ready or not, here it comes:
- It was early 2015, and the Steelers were in the market for a backup running back.
They were in the market for a backup, because in 2014, in what was his second NFL season, Le’Veon Bell had rushed for 1,361 yards on 290 carries (4.7 average) and eight touchdowns, while also catching 83 passes for 854 yards (10.3 average) and three more touchdowns.
And they were in the market for a running back because Bell had been injured in the third quarter of the regular season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Steelers had been left with Josh Harris and street free agent Ben Tate for a Wild Card Round Game against the Baltimore Ravens the following week.
They also were in the market for a specific kind of backup running back, because in 2014 they also had been burned by LeGarrette Blount, who initially indicated he understood he was to be Bell’s backup but then walked off the sideline during a Monday night win in Tennessee as a protest to not being utilized enough.
Not all that long into the 2015 offseason, the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams, but they also were quite interested in another, younger option.
Mike Tomlin’s first exposure to this other, younger option had come at LSU’s Pro Day in the spring of 2011. It was there that Tomlin got a chance to get to know more about Stevan Ridley, a 5-foot-11, 225-pound junior who would be coming out for that year’s upcoming NFL Draft after rushing for 1,147 yards on 249 carries (4.6 average) and scoring 15 touchdowns for the eighth-ranked Tigers.
Ridley ended up going to the New England Patriots on the third round of the 2011 draft, and in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, he led them in rushing. In 2012, it was 1,263 yards on 290 carries (4.4 average) and 12 touchdowns, and in 2013, it was 773 yards on 178 carries (4.3 average) and seven touchdowns. Then about halfway though his 2014 season – his fourth in the NFL and therefore his contract year – Ridley injured a knee.
That brings us to the early stages of the 2015 offseason. The Steelers were looking for a backup running back. Ridley was looking for his next contract. And there had been a few LSU Pro Days in between 2011 and 2014, too.
“I have known him over the years,” said Tomlin after the Steelers signed Ridley to fill the roster spot created by rookie running back James Conner going on injured reserve following knee surgery. “It seems like every year I’m in Baton Rouge for LSU’s Pro Day … I not only met him at his Pro Day, but I’ve seen him at subsequent Pro Days. As a professional, he goes back to Baton Rouge and trains. I just have a lot of respect for him. Got to know him over the years, and I always thought if given the opportunity to work with him, I’d be open to it. I like his style of play.”
Once free agency hit in March 2015, the Steelers contacted Ridley to gauge his interest, and they were told that he wanted to allow his knee to have as much time to heal as possible so that he could have a chance to maximize his market value. The Steelers wanted to get something done early in free agency, and so they signed DeAngelo Williams to a two-year contract.
Under different circumstances, Stevan Ridley’s Steelers career could have gotten off to an earlier start, but based on what he has shown in the games against the Texans and Browns, it might not be over any time soon.
After the Houston Texans rushed for 176 yards on 28 attempts (6.3 average) in the game on Christmas Day that the Steelers won, 34-6, Tomlin was asked about his run defense. This was his answer: “Some of it was just our desire to minimize No. 10 [DeAndre Hopkins] so I don’t want to make more of a deal out of it than what it was. I was completely comfortable once we got a multi-score lead to allow them to run if they so chose. We couldn’t allow No. 10 to do what we’ve seen him do. Not only this year but over the course of his career. So really that was our focus as we went into the football game to work hard to minimize his impact on it, and we realized it could have some collateral in terms of the run game.”
That was often Bill Cowher’s philosophy when the Steelers would match up against the high-powered offense of the Cincinnati Bengals at a time when they had Carson Palmer at quarterback and Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh as the wide receivers.
- On Oct. 3, 2004, for example, a 28-17 Steelers victory at Paul Brown Stadium, Rudi Johnson rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, but Chad Johnson caught four passes for 54 yards and Houshmandzadeh caught six passes for 53 yards as the Steelers deployed their defense in a way that was designed to minimize the big plays that could be created in the passing game.
- It can be tough to watch a game like that, with the opponent consistently running the ball, but it can be an effective strategy when used against a big-play offense and in conjunction with your own offense that’s capable of scoring enough points to force the opponent to get into the 30s to win the game.
- I’m repeating this story because I’ve gotten several questions about a playoff field and potential matchups that would be favorable to the Steelers. It explains what I determined to be a rooting interest for the regular season finale between the Ravens and the Bengals.
- The Ravens were in a win-and-in situation with regards to the playoffs, and the idea of them winning in the Wild Card Round and then going to Foxborough for a 60-minute slugfest against the Patriots was intriguing to me, even though Baltimore winning that game against New England didn’t seem very likely. Even so, the way I looked at it was I wanted the Ravens in the playoffs just for the mere possibility of the Patriots having to play 60 minutes of physical football in the Divisional Round.
- But rooting for the Ravens, I have learned, requires a mental discipline I’m often incapable of sustaining. And so it came to be that I wanted the Ravens to win that game, right up to and until Tyler Boyd crossed the goal line after catching a fourth-and-ridiculous pass from Andy Dalton to win the game for the Bengals.
- Then I laughed out loud.
- Sorry not sorry.