BY WILL GRAVES
Mike Tomlin tried to sound resolute. The look on his face however, suggested otherwise.
Asked if he was sending a message by having rookie running back Le’Veon Bell take snaps with the first team at the end of his third practice as a professional football player earlier this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers coach failed to fight back a smile as he answered.
“None,” Tomlin said before quickly adding “but I’m sure you guys will run with it so go ahead.”
Hey, why not?
The battle for the right to replace the departed Rashard Mendenhall has been simmering since the moment the Steelers selected Bell with the 48th overall pick in the NFL draft. Even though the team signed restricted free agents Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman to one-year tenders, there’s little doubt the 21-year-old Bell has a future lining up behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Redman and Dwyer are simply hoping to hold off that future for as long as they can. The duo combined for 1,033 yards while splitting carries with Mendenhall in 2012 but couldn’t stay healthy, leaving their ability to become a true feature back in question.
Each worked aggressively in the offseason to shed weight, hoping slimmer waistlines would lead to a heavier workload. Dwyer estimates he dropped 25-30 pounds while Redman cut 15 pounds off his 6-foot frame.
“This is definitely the best shape I have ever been in since I have been in the league,” Dwyer said. “I just want to continue to be like this the rest of my career.”
That career that will likely continue elsewhere next season if he fails to gain any traction this fall. The same goes for Redman, who rushed for a 121 yards in a loss to Denver in the playoffs two years ago and has shown flashes of brilliance but can’t seem to stay out of the training room.
The issue isn’t necessarily production, but persistence. Every step forward for both players has been met by a step back.
Dwyer posted consecutive 100-yard games last October only to go down with a hamstring injury. Redman responded by piling up a career-high 147 yards in a victory over the Giants but was ineffective a week later against the Chiefs and collected just 26 carries total over the final seven games.
Dwyer wasn’t the same after his hamstring healed. A pair of ill-timed fumbles didn’t help matters. While the Steelers hardly batted an eye when the enigmatic Mendenhall opted to sign with Arizona in free agency, they also left Redman and Dwyer little wiggle room when they picked up Bell in the second round in April.
Bell is younger, taller (6-2) and more versatile than either of the two players he’s competing against. In addition to leading the nation with 383 carries last fall at Michigan State, he also caught 32 passes. After spending most of the last four years sending Mendenhall on the field on first and second down and bringing him out in true passing situations, Bell gives the Steelers a well-rounded option.
One that is humble but well aware of the expectations.
“I’m just going to compete,” Bell said. “I’ve been competing from Day 1. Just make those other guys better, make the other running backs better, and at the same time they’re going to make me better. I’m going to help this team the best that I can and get a Super Bowl.”
Bell played at around 245 pounds during his final year at Michigan State but arrived at St. Vincent College more than a dozen pounds lighter. His height has him resemble something more akin to a safety than a feature back and there’s more than a little bit of tenacity beneath his shoulder pads.
Each year, in full gear includes a “back on backers” drill that pits a running back and a linebacker against each other designed to simulate what happens when a back is required to pick up a blitz. On Monday Bell found himself lined up against first-round pick Jarvis Jones. Four times Jones hurtled his 245-pound frame at Bell. The fact they fought to a draw didn’t go unnoticed.
“I’m sure they’ll continue to see more of each other,” Tomlin said.
At least in camp. Things could change in the regular season if Bell and Jones both work their way into starting roles since the guys at the top of the depth chart typically practice against the backups.
While Tomlin appears to be impressed by Bell’s quick grasp of the offense, he is serious when he says he’ll wait to see how things play out before anointing a starter for Week 1 against Tennessee.
Then again, if Tomlin has his way, he won’t have to name one. It’ll become self-evident.
“You would like a known feature guy,” he said. “I think everybody is of that mentality, but it’s got to be something that’s taken by someone.”