One of the most surprising aspects of the 2010 draft occurred when the first 187 players were chosen and Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer was not among them.
He was big, had decent speed and produced. He ran for 1,395 yards in '08, another 1,395 yards in '09, and finished his three-year career as Georgia Tech's sixth-leading rusher and averaged 6.2 yards per carry.
Finally, Dwyer's name was called at No. 188, midway into the sixth round. The Steelers could not pass him up, despite rumblings that Dwyer might not be dedicated enough and that his weight could be an issue.
Dwyer backed up the weight-issue worries by reporting to his first training camp somewhat heavy and then showing up for his second camp last year looking like a marshmallow ready to be roasted. He made the team as a rookie, but did not pull on a uniform for a game in '10 until the finale in Cleveland. He lost a lot of weight -- he had a lot to lose -- in the '11 training camp but again did not dress for the first four regular-season games.
Then came the fifth game, and Dwyer showed what he might be able to do. He ripped off a 76-yard run against Tennessee and finished with 107 yards rushing. It was his only meaningful action -- he would have just five more carries and finish the season on injured reserve because of a foot injury.
Now, as the Steelers prepare to open their 80th season in eight days, Dwyer finds himself in position to help save the running game they so desperately want to improve. He tacked on another 63 yards rushing on 13 carries in the preseason finale Thursday night, giving him the team's preseason lead with 147 yards on 28 carries and a nice 5.3-yard average.
"He toted the load tonight," coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. "He was the primary ballcarrier, and that's kind of what we wanted to see. It's really a snapshot of his growth and development throughout this training camp and preseason. First things first, he showed up in good physical condition, that's a prerequisite. He kind of took off from there ... it needs to continue. He's capable of it continuing."
Dwyer is pushing Isaac Redman to start while Rashard Mendenhall mends over the next month. Redman, bothered by hip and ankle injuries this summer, did not play Thursday and compiled 38 yards rushing on 17 carries in preseason games.
It might not matter who starts because both will get plenty of use.
"Red could have played this week, they're just resting him as much as they can," Dwyer said. "I'm just here for whatever. I'll just be prepared to play next week and do my job."
That job has included something the Steelers are fast discovering, that Dwyer also can catch the ball. He caught only 15 passes in his three seasons at Georgia Tech, and one in the regular season with the Steelers. He caught four Saturday night in Buffalo, including a 33-yarder from Ben Roethlisberger on third down at the 3 that jump-started a 98-yard touchdown drive.
"I've really worked on it," Dwyer said of his receiving. "It's something they didn't think I could do when I first came out of college, and I'm just trying to make me an all-around player."
Returning punts in the NFL is simple. Catch the ball, make the first defender miss you, run like heck.
Check, check, check, said rookie Chris Rainey.
"I made one guy miss," Rainey said after returning two punts 78 and 90 yards into the end zone Thursday night. "That is all you have to do. After you make the first guy miss, it's all over."
Because of holding penalties on each, it wasn't over, but that didn't matter in the final preseason game. Tomlin had seen enough to know he might have another Pro Bowl returner to replace Antonio Brown, who made the Pro Bowl last year in that capacity.
"Flags were thrown, but it is encouraging to see him make the first one to two tacklers miss," Tomlin noted. "I think that's a sign of any credible NFL returnman."
Had both touchdowns counted, Rainey would have led the NFL in preseason touchdowns with four, one more than Brown, who led the AFC with three touchdown catches and 204 yards receiving.
Nose tackle Casey Hampton played his first two series of the preseason Thursday night and was momentarily taken aback when asked if he thought he would start in Denver Sept. 9.
"What do you mean?" Hampton responded.
ACL surgery in January, a reduction in salary and the play of young Steve McLendon will not keep Hampton from his appointed round as he sees it.
"If I can get out there, I'm ready go," the 12-year veteran said. "So, I'm ready to go."
His backup all those years, Chris Hoke, has retired to television and radio, and now McLendon will provide assistance when needed, especially in Denver's thin air.
"Steve showed me a lot this preseason, and I know a lot what he can do," Hampton said. "It makes it a lot easier for me to come out when I'm winded."
This is the third time Hampton has come back from ACL surgery. He did so once while playing at the University of Texas and again while playing in Texas, in the seventh game of the '04 season against the Dallas Cowboys. He missed the rest of that year.
He said he has this ACL rehab thing down pat now.
"This is my third one. Just knowing how to rehab and how to come back from it. Things have changed, technology changed and how they do things change."
• Steelers quarterbacks had a nice preseason. The four combined to complete 69 of 99 passes for 840 yards, eight touchdowns, one interception and a 118.2 passer rating. Ben Roethlisberger had a 97.5 rating, Byron Leftwich a 131.1 rating, Charlie Batch a 110.7 and Jerrod Johnson a 136.4.
• For the fifth consecutive year, the Steelers went 3-1 in the preseason and for the seventh time in the past eight, they lost just once in the preseason (4-1 in 2007).