Since he became coach in 2007, Mike Tomlin has not been afraid to use one running back until the wheels came off. And sometimes they did.
Willie Parker was leading the league with 321 carries in '07 when he fractured his leg in Week 15 in St. Louis. Rashard Mendenhall was one of just five NFL backs to have more than 300 carries when he had 324 in '10.
In the five years under Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, the Steelers' top running back never had to worry about getting the bulk of the work, whether it was Parker or Mendenhall. The team's leading rusher averaged 263.2 carries a season in those five years.
That, though, might all change under Todd Haley, who used the running back-by-committee approach in Kansas City and looks as if he might want to do the same with the Steelers.
"As of right now, we've been switching out every play [in practice]," said running back Isaac Redman. "It looks like they might want to use us as a group instead of one guy."
Redman would appear to be the top back after stepping in for injured Mendenhall last season and rushing for 121 yards in the playoff loss in Denver. And, when the Steelers return to Sports Authority Field and open the regular season against Peyton Manning and the Broncos Sunday night, Redman likely will be the starting running back.
But Redman said nobody has told him he is the starter. What's more, it is possible Jonathan Dwyer, who led all rushers in the preseason and has been the team's most-improved player, could start against the Broncos. But nobody has told him, either.
Regardless who it is, the mere idea there appears to be no clear-cut starter is evidence of the approach Haley wants to use with his backs. And testament to the progress made by Dwyer in his third season.
"We have a plan and we're excited about the group," Haley said. "When Rashard gets back, whenever that happens, whether it's this week or next week, we got a nice variable at the back. We got some big guys who can move piles, we got some quick guys and we got some in-between guys."
Haley said he didn't know much about Dwyer when he came here after three years as head coach in Kansas City. But, after what he witnessed in the preseason, when Dwyer reported to training camp in shape and led the team in rushing, Haley said he saw "a young developing player who's made big strides from last year."
He said he also saw Dwyer working with younger running backs in practice, another sign of his maturation.
"It's a real encouraging sign of a kid who has grown up and realizes it's his third year," Haley said. "And that becomes the make-it or break-it time."
Dwyer reported to training camp weighing 236 pounds, considerably lighter than last season when he reported out of shape and his weight was "way above that, that's all I can say."
But, in addition to leading the team in preseason rushing, Dwyer made two plays in the third game in Buffalo that caught the attention of Tomlin and his coaching staff.
On one, Dwyer broke off a wheel route to make a 33-yard, back-shoulder catch on third down from the Steelers 3 to jump-start a 98-yard scoring drive.
On the other, he picked up a blitzing defender that allowed Byron Leftwich to throw a 39-yard touchdown to Antonio Brown.
"I wanted to go by what I saw, and everything I've seen is a young, developing player that's made big strides from last year to this year."
"I wanted to show I could do more, not just be a one-trick pony," said Dwyer, a fifth-round choice from Georgia Tech in '10. "I wanted to develop myself as a pass-catcher and a route-runner, and also with pass protection and being more of a student of the game.
"I wanted to develop myself as a professional."
Dwyer could fill the role previously played by Mewelde Moore -- a third-down back who also plays in the two-minute offense. But it won't just be him. Rookie Chris Rainey also will play in situations where the Steelers want to take advantage of his speed and big-play ability.
"I'm excited, not just for me individually; I'm excited I'm able to be a factor in helping us win games," Dwyer said. "I want to be a part of that after getting a little taste of that last year. It made me more hungry to come in here, be in the proper shape, look my best and do what I have to do to give me an opportunity."
Even if he has to share those opportunities.Steelers - homepage
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published September 8, 2012 4:00 AM