New Steelers running backs coach James Saxon worked in the same capacity the past three years in Minnesota, where future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson made life simple. Peterson received the lion’s share of the carries and Saxon had no concerns about getting opportunities for other backs.
With the Steelers, Saxon must work through a much more difficult process. He has a starter in Le’Veon Bell, a talented runner and receiver out of the backfield who set the franchise record for most yards from scrimmage as a rookie last season; a starter/capable reserve in LeGarrette Blount, a bruiser who has more than 2,700 career rushing yards in five NFL seasons; and third-round pick Dri Archer, perhaps the fastest player in this NFL rookie class.
“We’re trying to see what we have and how we want to go as an offense,” Saxon said. “We’ve had discussions about how we’re going to use them. We’re still formulating all that stuff.”
If the first preseason game against the New York Giants last week was any indication, the Steelers plan to use all three prominently. The starting offense played sparingly, but the first series provided a glimpse into how the coaches plan to incorporate all three backs.
Bell received the first two carries and had runs of 8 and 9 yards. On the third play, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a short screen to Archer, who gained 46 yards. On the next two plays from the red zone, Blount gained 7 yards before a third-down pass fell incomplete.
It was Bell setting the tone, Archer providing a change of pace and Blount getting the tough yards near the goal line.
“We have a great stable of backs back there,” right guard David DeCastro said. “They’re all different, but they can do a lot of great things. Hopefully, they all stay healthy and we can keep using them like that. They’re great weapons to have.”
Coach Mike Tomlin indicated Thursday Blount could be used in more than just red-zone situations. At 6 feet, 250 pounds, Blount has the build of someone who can excel near the goal line, but he also has experience as a featured back. He rushed for 1,000 yards as a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and gained 772 yards last season with the New England Patriots.
“They’re both going to get their share,” Tomlin said of Bell and Blount. “In terms of the details, no, we’ll deal with that on a game-by-game basis based on the plan, based on the health of the men and a lot of other variables. We have a great deal of confidence in both guys. Both guys will be central reasons why we’re successful. That’s the plan and I think they’re open to that.”
Despite his experience in Minnesota, Saxon knows how to handle a crowded backfield. When he was the running backs coach in Miami from 2008-10, he had Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown share the workload. The Dolphins ranked 11th and fourth in the league in rushing in 2008 and 2009. In 2009, Williams had 1,121 rushing yards while Brown had 648.
“We were very effective running the football in Miami,” Saxon said. “We used a lot of wildcat stuff with those guys to get them on the field at the same time. It’s a little bit different here. We have a great quarterback and a great receiver.
“We just want to be very productive as an offense and take care of the football. We’re very fortunate to have a guy like LeGarrette, who is going to be able to complement Le’Veon and move the football on the ground. We’re in a good spot with those guys.”
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes to have different options in the backfield, too. Because of depth issues at running back, Bell had to take on most of the workload last season, but Haley has a history of making the most of his backs.
When he was the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, he had Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster. In 2010, the Chiefs led the NFL in rushing. Charles had 1,467 yards and Jones had 896.
The Steelers were 27th in the NFL in rushing last season. Haley and his players feel like they can be much better this season. The starters took a good first step against the Giants. Bell and Blount averaged 6 yards per carry on the first drive. It’s something they want to continue to work on the final three preseason games, beginning Saturday against the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field.
“I felt like we had a lot of energy and snap to our run game [against the Giants],” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “I feel good about it.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.