PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers’ crowded backfield is sorting itself out. Just not the way coach Mike Tomlin envisioned.
What started as a three-man race between Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and rookie Le’Veon Bell is turning into a battle of attrition after Tomlin ruled Bell out of Saturday’s game against Kansas City with a right foot injury. Bell underwent an MRI on Tuesday and Tomlin said he will wait for a second opinion before making a determination about Bell’s long-term status. Tomlin brushed aside reports that Bell is out several weeks.
“I’ll address the injuries (today),” Tomlin said. “I haven’t met with the doctors (yet).”
The setback is the latest in what is quickly becoming a frustrating camp for the 48th overall pick in the NFL draft.
The Steelers noted Bell’s durability and his versatility when they selected the 21-year-old out of Michigan State. Bell’s 382 carries last season led the country. Throw in his 32 receptions and Bell averaged more than 30 touches a game without incident.
For two weeks, Bell looked even better than advertised, so good Tomlin named Bell a co-starter even though a sore left knee kept him out of the preseason opener against the New York Giants. Bell aggravated the injury in practice last week only to recover in time to start Monday night in Washington.
The highly anticipated debut lasted a handful of snaps. Bell carried four times for nine yards before tweaking a foot with an injury that suddenly swings the door open for Dwyer and Redman.
It’s a door both players have struggled walking through.
Redman spent last season dealing with ankle injuries and was held out of Monday’s game after suffering a stinger in practice.
Dwyer stepped in and ran for 68 yards on 14 carries but also fumbled, a major concern for a team that finished minus-10 in the giveaway/takeaway ratio in 2012.
“I think I’m doing OK, but I know I can be better,” Dwyer said. “I’m just trying to be consistently consistent and show something different each and every week and each and every game.”
At the moment, the Steelers would settle for having the same face back there for an extended period of time. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley reshuffled the offensive line and introduced a zone blocking scheme in the offseason. Results have been mixed at best for a team that ranked 29th in yards per carry a year ago.
Though stressing it’s too early to get concerned, Dwyer and Redman understand it’s time to get serious.
“Le’Veon’s down, and we’re a little banged up,” Redman said. “So, I’m ready to step up and lead this room.”
Redman’s done it sporadically in the past, but each step forward has been met by a step back. In a contract season, he understands this is his last chance to show the Steelers — or some other NFL team — he can become a reliable starter.
His preference is to remain in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers intend to turn Bell into the guy who will carry the load through the rest of the decade. Haley’s track record with running backs is impressive. He turned Jamaal Charles into the NFL’s second-leading rusher in 2010 while coaching the Chiefs, a season that ended with Kansas City in the playoffs.
For Pittsburgh to get there the Steelers know they’ll need to take some pressure off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Having young and productive legs in the backfield will help. Bell is eager to live up to the billing.
At the moment, however, the only place he’s living is the training room.
While Dwyer and Redman went through the paces on Wednesday, Bell sat on a table getting treatment.
It’s a place Dwyer and Redman have visited regularly through the years. One more extended trip and they understand their careers may be in jeopardy. It’s why both players dropped a significant amount of weight in the offseason. Redman shed 15 pounds while Dwyer lost closer to 30. They hope the added quickness will make them more effective.
Bell’s uncertain status gives them one final shot at making a lasting impression. Redman remains adamant he can produce. If he can, what looks like a tough call might turn into an easy one.
“I’m pretty sure that they would be glad if somebody would come out and separate themselves from the bunch,” Redman said. “I know they would never be opposed to that.
“And, hopefully, I can do that.”
NOTES: The Steelers activated tight end David Johnson from the physically unable to perform list on Wednesday. Johnson hasn’t played since tearing the ACL in his right knee last summer. Johnson said he’s optimistic he can play on Saturday. Pittsburgh needs help at tight end while Pro Bowl starter Heath Miller returns from a left knee injury. ... Offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum is getting a look at left tackle this week. Beachum started five games at right tackle last season.