Newcomer to Steelers' backfield looks sharp after all, but it's Stephens-Howling
August 11, 2013 8:15 AM
Steelers running back LaRod Stephens-Howling picks up a first down against the Giants.
By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They promised their new running back would get some snaps with the first team, and they were right.
They said he was fast, had good vision and would be a good fit for their new zone-blocking schemes, and they were right.
But the Steelers running back who made an impressive debut Saturday night in the preseason opener against the New York Giants was not rookie Le'Veon Bell.
Rather, it was LaRod Stephens-Howling, a free-agent pickup from the Arizona Cardinals.
"I really didn't know coming in that Le'Veon wasn't going to play," Stephens-Howling said. "Then they told me they were going to get me in there quick."
And Stephens-Howling made quick work of his opportunity.
He was brought in from the Cardinals to be the team's third-down back -- a role he performed for most of five years with Arizona. But, when coach Mike Tomlin decided at the last minute to not play Bell because of a sore knee, Stephens-Howling stepped in and took the snaps with the first-team offense that were expected to go to Bell.
All the former Pitt running back did was finish as the team's leading rusher, gaining 40 yards on seven carries and looking comfortable running in some of the zone-blocking plays. The Steelers rushed for 81 of their 94 yards in the first half.
"LaRod Stephens-Howling had some cuts on the back side and he's a great running back," said center Maurkice Pouncey. "He has great vision and he got outside and made some plays."
"I thought LaRod Stephens-Howling did a great job of hitting the holes," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "We wanted to establish an identity early of running the ball and I think we did a good job with that."
Tomlin said he elected not to use Bell, a No. 2 draft choice, because his knee was still sore after getting it dinged at training camp. That is just another indication of the plans the Steelers have for the former Michigan State back.
"He's going to be fine," Tomlin said. "I just don't want to start his career out in less than ideal circumstances from a health standpoint. We have a lot of time to evaluate him and others, so we're going to be patient there."
"It's sad to see a teammate not be able to participate," Stephens-Howling said of Bell. "You could see it on his face how bad he felt not being out there."
The Steelers are hoping to use Stephens-Howling in much the same manner they employed Chris Rainey last year, but with much greater success.
He is the smallest back on the team at 5 feet 7, 185 pounds, but he averaged 9.5 yards on 56 carries and had a 73-yard touchdown run in a limited role in Arizona.
"I feel real comfortable being here," said Stephens-Howling, who grew up in Johnstown and went to high school there. "Not only being back home, but the guys here have welcomed me with open arms."
The Steelers ran approximately seven zone-blocking plays while their first-team offense was on the field, and Stephens-Howling was in for four of them. He looked very comfortable and productive in the scheme, even though he never ran them with the Cardinals.
"It's a lot different than what I'm used to, but I was able to catch on," Stephens-Howling said.