“He toted the load tonight, he was the primary ball carrier, 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, and that’s a prerequisite. He kind of took off from there. What he showed tonight is kind of a snapshot of what he’s done for us here in the last month or so. It needs to continue. He’s capable of it continuing.”
-Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin after running back Jonathan Dwyer’s 13-carry, 63-yard Week 3 preseason performance (a 38-7 win over Buffalo).
This sounds like a guy that is geared up for a breakout season.
Dwyer is a big back with surprising long speed. He’s not very elusive behind the line of scrimmage, but has adequate agility and can make people miss in the open field. Dating back to his days as a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket, he is an effective inside runner. There is a lot of young Michael Turner-like qualities in his game, and on a team like the Steelers that is exactly what they need – a bruiser who can make plays in the open field and take pressure off of the passing game. He is only 23 years old and finally has his head on straight. Taking the NFL seriously, something he was rumored to not be doing in his first two years in the league.
He was a very good running back in college and the biggest problem he has had is that he didn’t treat the NFL like a job. This is common for young guys in the league who haven’t had to put in the work and effort at lower levels to succeed; some never adjust, others just take longer. Dwyer appears to be a case of the latter, especially given his offseason weight issues. He had issues hitting weight throughout school and repeated the same problems at the NFL Combine, causing his stock to plummet deep into Day 3. He followed that up with poor appearances at training camp each of his first two seasons and organized team activities this past May. The light turned on between organized team activities and camp because he showed up to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in excellent shape.
Dwyer has a huge opportunity here with Rashard Mendenhall coming off an ACL tear and Isaac Redman fighting through three different injuries. Dwyer will be a restricted free agent next year while Mendenhall will be an unrestricted free agent and Redman will be a 28-year-old restricted free agent. Given the Steelers’ cap issues, unless Mendenhall is clearly better, there won’t be a reason to pay him more money than either Dwyer or Redman. When it comes time for new contracts, with all else being equal, a 23-year-old Dwyer will look better than a 28-year-old Redman. The Steelers must find out what they have in him this season, and, given the current health issues plaguing Mendenhall and Redman, there’s a three-week window to open the season for Dwyer to earn his keep.
The Steelers are not a fan of the committee approach. They preach competition and rarely go into each season without contingency plans, but when they start playing games they want one guy. Mendenhall wasn’t supposed to be activated off the Physically Unable to Perform List, but not coincidentally after Redman encountered some injuries in August, Mendenhall was activated. Redman’s banged up, probably will be all year and Chris Rainey is a role player, so all that’s left is Dwyer. If Dwyer is not the answer or gets hurt, the Steelers want the option to go to Mendenhall before Week 6. I think the activation of Medenhall off the Physically Unable to Perform List, despite him not being ready, says more about Redman’s health than anything else.
If Redman were healthy, I think Mendenhall’s still on the Physically Unable to Perform List. Activating Mendenhall from the Physically Unable to Perform List so they can use him for two weeks at the expense of another roster spot doesn’t pass the smell test, especially given the other current health issues on the team. Mendenhall’s the owner of a 3.9 and 4.1 yards per carry the last two years, he’s limited in the passing game, and nothing special on the field. Redman did better than Mendenhall last year and he’s not coming off a blown out knee. If the Steelers were confident Redman were healthy, they would feel better about rolling with him for the first five games with Dwyer as Plan B/competition and Rainey in his role. They could use that extra body somewhere else. An extra body on the offensive line or at linebacker is more important than having four running backs. This limits Dwyer’s window of opportunity, but all signs point toward it being open regardless.
As far as this week is concerned, Redman did practice on Monday, but Tomlin lumped him in with players such as Rashard Mendenhall and James Harrison in seeing “where the week takes us.” Despite Tomlin’s newfound optimism on Mendenhall, it’s doubtful that he will play in the opener and Redman being mentioned in the same ‘uncertain’ breath as Mendenhall has me thinking he’s not in the team’s plans, either. One of them will be active, but only in an emergency role. The Steelers will trend more towards the pass despite Mike Wallace just reporting to camp, but there’s plenty of room for Dwyer to rack up 20 carries as well as a few opportunities in the passing game in the short-term, and a starting job in the long-term.