Twice in the last few years, the Steelers have entered an offseason with a stated goal of improving their running attack. The first time it was more about scheme. This time it's more about the personnel.
When the Steelers left Saint Vincent College late last August, they thought they had the potential for a solid running attack, and some of their optimism centered around what seemed to be good depth at running back.
Rashard Mendenhall was ahead of schedule in his return from a torn ACL, Jonathan Dwyer had reported to camp in shape – finally – and had averaged 5.3 yards per carry through the preseason, Isaac Redman looked like a better version of his 2011 self when he was a reliable alternative for any situation, Baron Batch seemed to be progressing after a year on the injured reserve list, and rookie Chris Rainey had dynamic speed and was lightning with the ball in his hands.
When the Steelers left Heinz Field following a win over the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 30 that allowed them to escape the season at .500, their view of the running game was decidedly less rosy.
"The season Rashard had was not what we would have hoped for," said Steelers President Art Rooney II when asked for his assessment. "Obviously, we knew he was coming back from an injury so there were some unknowns there. So, without getting into the real specifics with Rashard, it's fair to say that we are going to need a better performance out of the running back position if we're going to be successful, Whether it's Rashard or Jonathan or Isaac or somebody else, we have to be better at that position, as well as others, but certainly at that position. In this offseason that's something we've got to look at and decide how we get better and who we get better with."
Dwyer ended up leading the Steelers in rushing with 623 yards on 156 carries, which worked out to a 4.0 average, and he also scored two touchdowns. That was the lowest team-leading rushing total since 1991 when Merril Hoge posted 610 yards on 165 carries (3.7 average) to go along with two touchdowns. Not coincidentally, the Steelers didn't make the playoffs in 1991 either, and in fact finished at 7-9.
"I am disappointed that we weren't more consistent running the football," said Rooney. "It's strange because we did have games where we had good success and against good teams on occasion. So I can't say that I have the answers but I think, again, everybody in this building agrees (the running game) is a place we've got to get better, and we've got to figure out what we need to do to get better. It's something that I think for the Pittsburgh Steelers to be successful, (the running game) has to be one of the foundations, and so we've got to figure that out."
Figuring it out doesn't look to be a simple chore, because today there seem to be no sure-things among the players at the position.
Mendenhall will be an unrestricted free agent, and since he seemed to cross the Rubicon by not showing up for the game against the San Diego Chargers after being made inactive, his return to the team appears unlikely at this point. As General Manager Kevin Colbert said, "Any time a player doesn't show up for a game, that's unacceptable. There's no circumstance, other than obviously a family emergency or something of that nature which would have been predetermined to be excusable."
Neither Dwyer nor Redman did enough during the season to convince the coaching staff they can be the feature back on a team that's contending for a championship, Batch ended a second straight season on the injured reserve list, and Rainey was waived after being arrested for an incident in which witnesses claim he slapped his girlfriend twice in a dispute over a cell phone.
"Where we were in the running game last year was indicative of the talent at the position," said Colbert. "I will reiterate what Coach Tomlin said and what Art said, that you can take any group, any position, and it was an 8-8 result. They are a part of the 8-8. Was it as good as it needed to be? No. But collectively, I think you can go across the board and say that about any position on either side of the ball, offense, defense and special teams. That group of players didn't produce like we had anticipated them producing. That falls back on me.
"I can say, collectively that group wasn't as good as we anticipated. You can talk about strengths and weaknesses about each guy, and that's something we will do internally."