Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Steelers Are Ready To Run - Wheeling Intelligencer

PITTSBURGH - There is nothing imposing about Jonathan Dwyer. No flash. No ankle-breaking open field moves.

That isn't the way the third-year Pittsburgh Steelers running back operates. He is more direct than dazzling. Get the ball. Pick a hole. Go. Repeat.

No wonder Dwyer has looked so comfortable in no-nonsense offensive coordinator Todd Haley's new system. With Rashard Mendenhall still rehabbing a surgically repaired knee, and Isaac Redman nursing a hip injury, the Steelers have turned to the soft-spoken Dwyer to provide the thump in the running game during the preseason.

So far, so good. Dwyer has 83 yards on 10 carries through two games, including 43 yards while working with the first team in a 26-24 victory against Indianapolis on Sunday night. The performance was typical Dwyer. He never made it outside the tackles while gashing the middle of the Colts defense.

"I just want to contribute," Dwyer said.

Given the way the Steelers expect to run the ball with Haley calling the plays, he will almost certainly get a shot even after the regulars are ready to go.

Pittsburgh parted ways with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in the offseason and turned to Haley to restore a little grit to a unit that struggled to move the ball on the ground at crucial times in recent years.

The Steelers haven't finished in the top five in the NFL in rushing touchdowns since Jerome Bettis retired following the 2005 season, instead relying more and more on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's arm.

While the two-time Super Bowl winner remains among the league's elite, he has also taken a beating the last few seasons. He missed one game last year and was slowed in several others due to a left ankle injury. The Steelers invested in upgrading the offensive line during the offseason, drafting Stanford guard David DeCastro in the first round, and former Ohio State tackle Mike Adams in the second. They have even added a full-time fullback to the mix, something missing the last several seasons as the Steelers worked out of a one-back set.

The goal is to take some of the heat off Roethlisberger and put pressure on opposing defenses by coming at them relentlessly with the ground game. It worked wonders for Haley in Kansas City in 2010, when the then-Chiefs head coach rode the legs of Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles to an unlikely AFC West title.

Haley would love to get similar production from a talented - if injury riddled - stable of backs in Pittsburgh.

"If we can win every game running it 35-40 times, that would be great," Haley said. "Statistically, if you hand the ball off 30-plus times in a game, you've got a 90-plus percent chance of winning."

Meaning there should be plenty of carries to go around even after Mendenhall and Redman return. Dwyer has certainly looked the part during his limited reps during his first two seasons. He ripped of a memorable 76-yard run in a win over Tennessee last fall before a broken bone in his left foot ended his season.

He pledged to get in better shape for camp and did it by getting serious about his conditioning.

It was never a problem during his phenomenal career at Georgia Tech, when he rushed for 3,226 yards in three memorable seasons playing in the Yellow Jackets' unique flexbone offense.

It was during his first two years in Pittsburgh, when he carried the ball all of 25 times. Compare that to his final year at Georgia Tech when he had 235 carries in 13 games.

The Steelers saw enough to take him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, and he has spent the last two summers trying to prove he is not just a product of Georgia Tech's run-heavy system.

"That's what you're always trying to do," Dwyer said. "I want to be the best there is, just like everybody else in this locker room."

Dwyer has already made a convert out of Pittsburgh's offensive linemen, who view his straightforward approach as a blessing of sorts.

"He makes a decision and he sticks with it," tackle Max Starks said. "You don't want guys dancing or always thinking about cutting back the entire time. He makes his one cut and he gets north and south. You want that because it makes it easier for us."

Don't get Starks or Haley wrong. The Steelers aren't trying to turn the clock back 40 years. Haley doesn't need the running game to be groundbreaking, just effective. This is the same coach, after all, who let Kurt Warner throw it 598 times in 2008 while calling the plays for the Arizona Cardinals.

Roethlisberger will get a chance to turn it loose every once in a while.

"I would think that one of our strengths is versatility," Haley said. "You don't want to do a lot of things just OK. You'd like to do some things real good. I think with some of the ability we have, and if our line continues to gel together and gets better every week, we have a chance to be a pretty versatile group that can hurt you in a number of ways."

Dwyer simply hopes he is one of them.

"I just want to help us get to New Orleans and get that seventh ring," he said.

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