LATROBE — Jonathan Dwyer doesn’t count reps. Not in practice. Not in walkthroughs. Not in games.
The Pittsburgh Steelers running back knows it’s out of his hands. If he got caught up worrying about how many times he touched the ball compared to Isaac Redman and rookie Le’Veon Bell, his focus wouldn’t be in the right place anyway.
Dwyer understands he’ll get his chance. The “when” is almost irrelevant.
“I just want to get time, whether it’s the first team, the third team, the fifth team if we had one,” Dwyer said. “I just want to do what I can do and show that all my hard work has paid off.”
He might have to wait his turn in the preseason opener against the New York Giants on Saturday night. Coach Mike Tomlin said Thursday that Bell — taken in the second round of the 2013 draft — will get a chance to work with the starters to get a read on how quickly he’s acclimated to life in the NFL.
“I think he has earned that,” Tomlin said of Bell. “But, don’t be surprised to see him play after those guys are out of the game as well. He, like a lot of guys, we need to get a lot of exposure to.”
The news didn’t come as a shock to Dwyer. He understood when the Steelers chose Bell with the 42nd overall selection in the draft that Bell would be given every opportunity to win the starting gig. It’s also one of the reasons Dwyer spent the offseason shedding 25-30 pounds, hoping a slender physique would give him a dash of quickness and a more durable frame.
On the cusp of a true breakout season after topping 100 yards in wins over Cincinnati and Washington in October, nagging hamstring problems kept him from getting a firm grip on the top of the depth chart. Two fumbles, including one in an ugly 20-14 loss to Cleveland that sapped the Steelers of any late-season momentum, didn’t help.
Dwyer understands most players who lead an NFL team in rushing over the course of an entire season don’t enter the next training camp fighting for their careers. Yet his 623 yards were the fewest by the team’s top rusher since Merrill Hoge ran for 610 yards in 1991. Dwyer quietly signed a one-year tender in the offseason and is well versed in the long-term ramifications if he can’t squeeze into the lineup.
Yet the 24-year-old is stressing a “team first” mentality. He and Bell have the same agent, and Dwyer reached out to Bell shortly after the draft to welcome him to Pittsburgh. Dwyer wasn’t being magnanimous as much as he was simply trying to do for a rookie what was done for him when he was selected in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.
“He’s like my big brother,” Bell said of Dwyer. “He helped me out when we got here on the field or in the film room. If I can possibly help him out in some way, I’m going to try to.”
The Steelers have praised Bell for his versatility, particularly his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. It’s an area Dwyer would like to improve in, though he did collect 18 receptions last fall. More often he was brought in during passing situations to serve as the last line of defense for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It’s a job in which Dwyer is remarkably effective. Call it the byproduct of being a compact 5-foot-11, although Dwyer looks taller now that he’s leaner. The baby fat is gone, part of a conscious decision by Dwyer to take better care of himself. He estimates he’s around 230 pounds, and the difference on the field is noticeable.
“You feel a lot quicker once you have the ball,” he said. “You feel like you can make something happen once you touch it. They can see that you’re in shape.”
Tomlin would love for a true No. 1 back to emerge before the season opener against Tennessee. Though the Steelers have committed to Bell in the long-term, in the short-term they’ll take whoever wants the ball the most. Dwyer remains insistent he can be that guy.
“If I produce when I’m out there, that will show what I’m capable of,” Dwyer said. “People know I can be a starter in this league. Pittsburgh knows and there are teams around this league that know.
“Whatever opportunity I get, I have to take advantage of it.”
NOTES: The Steelers signed free agent tight end Nathan Overbay on Thursday looking for depth at a position weakened by injury. Heath Miller and David Johnson are on the Physically Unable to Perform list with knee injuries and Matt Spaeth was examined in Pittsburgh on Thursday for an undisclosed injury suffered in practice on Wednesday. To make room for Overbay, whose uncle is major leaguer Lyle Overbay, the Steelers cut offensive tackle Mike Farrell. ... Saint Vincent College is closed on today. The Steelers will return to the school to begin the final week of training camp next Monday.