Collier: Steelers need a clear winner in running back competition


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Leaning over the dining hall salad bar the other day was a young man with the unmistakable body of a top NFL running back, the long legs, the narrow hips, the high glutes, the bulging triceps, the upper musculature tendons stretching like bridge cables through his shoulders to the neck -- just the kind of specimen the Steelers desperately need.

Excuse me, sir, and you are?

Oh, you're Willie Parker.

Yeah that Willie Parker, now for the first time at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe as a coaching intern, the very Willie Parker who, in the summer of 2004, arrived from North Carolina without a portfolio and wound up the third-leading rusher in Steelers history.

Now, on the other side of Fast Willie's career, that story is aching to be retold in a camp thick with unremarkable, unproven or uninitiated ball carriers.

Here's how harsh that situation is:

The top Steelers rusher from a year ago, which was empirically the worst rushing season here since the unfulfilling days of Tommy Maddox Airways, was Jonathan Dwyer, who fizzed and fizzled for 623 yards. By contrast, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson had 861 yards.

In December.

"I think these guys have been great competitors, and they fit in real well with what we do," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "But for the first time in a good little while here, they know there are multiple opportunities available. They want to be healthy and they want to compete. They're in shape and they're ready to go.

"It's gonna be a fair fight and the best man will win."

The best man at this wedding of opportunity and urgency -- an offense where the rushing yards have dropped almost 30 percent since 2007 -- could be anyone from Dwyer to second-round draft pick Le'Veon Bell to rookie free-agent Curtis McNeal, who wore Parker's former No. 39 onto the field Saturday for Mike Tomlin's first public practice.

Isaac "Red Zone" Redman is here, as is former Pitt and Arizona Cardinals specialist LaRod Stephens-Howling, as is Baron Batch, healthier than at any time since his aborted training camp two summers ago.

"It's like my rookie season again; this is the first time in a while I've felt like I did then," Batch said. "For me, it's just finding a way to get better. There's never been a doubt in my mind I could play in this league, at all, never been an issue. I've got to eliminate mental errors."

This training camp and four obligatory exhibition games likely will be littered with mental mistakes as Todd Haley's offense shifts to include more zone blocking than straight power assignments, but the bigger problem when all that is over might still be talent.

You would have to add 327 yards to Dwyer's 2012 total just to match that of the next least-successful featured back in the AFC North Division, Cleveland's Trent Richardson who gained 950 as a rookie. Baltimore and Cincinnati both have 1,000-yard rushers on staff with Ray Rice and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Bengals further buttressed the position with the first running back taken in the draft, Giovani Bernard.

But this isn't Wilson's first try at pulling together a rushing attack for a team that has lost its marquee back, or whatever Rashard "Do I Have To Come If I'm Not Playing?" Mendenhall was.

"I've been through this before where the quote-unquote starter wasn't returning; it's a challenge," Wilson said. "You roll your sleeves up and know that the best players will generally separate themselves from the others through the camp and the games and the drills.

"You're always teaching and emphasizing competing. You're always teaching and emphasizing technique. You're always teaching and emphasizing fundamentals. Those aspects of the running back's game never change. It's the same training camp grind."

Wilson was with New England in 1998 when they drafted Robert Edwards out of Georgia to replace Curtis Martin, who left via free agency. Edwards piled up more than 1,100 yards that year but never fully escaped a cycle of injuries that began in college.

Injuries catch up to all running backs eventually, but for the moment, there could not have been a healthier person on the Saint Vincent campus Saturday than Bell, the biggest and thickest of Wilson's running backs at 6 feet 1 and 245 pounds or so.

Bell ran smoothly in his first practice, literally got his feet wet on a stormy day and went to the autograph-seekers after with nary a head fake.

"What I've always told young guys when they come into the league is that it takes a while to develop your style," Wilson said when asked about Bell. "There's a process to finding out who you are, there's still a long process to find out what kind of runner he's gonna be."

In their previous 33 games, the Steelers have gotten a 100-yard rushing performance seven times. They've gotten only 15 of 'em in their past 68. No one will care what kind of runner Bell is if he's merely the runner who changes all that.

Steelers - mobilehome - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published July 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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