Steelers Positional Outlook: Running Back

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LeVeon Bell leads what could be a deep and talented group of running backs in 2017. Photos from http://www.steelers.com

Perhaps the most difficult part of having the plethora of weapons that the Steelers do, on one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, is that there is only one ball to distribute to all of them. That difficulty is one that most teams wish they could have the opportunity of sorting their way through, and even if they did, chances are, they couldn’t pull it off as seamlessly as the Pittsburgh Steelers do. Not only does Todd Haley know how to use all of his weapons, he knows exactly when it is time to lean on one of them, which is exactly what he did with LeVeon Bell after the Steelers got off to a 4-5 start. From that moment on, the Steelers completely turned their season around, winning nine games in a row, advancing all the way to the AFCC Game, before falling to the New England Patriots. Had LeVeon Bell not been lost to injury early on in that game, maybe the outcome would have been a little different.

Once again in 2017, LeVeon Bell will be the primary focus of the Steelers ground game, and as great as he had been the last few seasons, Bell has still not yet entered his prime years. Despite missing four games in 2016, Bell rushed for 1,268 yards and 7 touchdowns. It was after a week 9 loss to Dallas where the greatness of LeVeon Bell became evident to everyone. Following that loss, the Steelers turned to Bell and the ground game to right the ship, and number 26 responded in a big way, churning out 620 yards over the next four games, including his 236 yard outburst on a snowy day in Buffalo.

In the playoffs, LeVeon set the Steelers single game postseason rushing record twice. The first time he set the record was during his 167 yard game against Miami, which he promptly broke the following week, when he put up 170 yards against a tough Chiefs defense in Kansas City. He looked to be getting off to another good start at New England until he had to leave the game early on after tweaking his groin. Bell’s strong finish to last season, coupled with his 357 yards in just over two postseason games, sets the stage for what will likely be a monster 2017 for the NFL’s best running back. Hoping to help preserve LeVeon Bell throughout the year, the Steelers have added some fresh young talent behind him for the coming season.

Heading into the the 2017 season, the depth chart behind LeVeon Bell will look a lot different from how it has been the last few years, as DeAngelo Williams will no longer be backing up the best running back in the NFL. As admirably as Williams performed when filling in for Bell, his age and a series of recent injuries made him a liability, and the Steelers wisely went another direction, that started with the signing of Kansas City Chiefs free agent Knile Davis. While Knile Davis may be capable of carrying the load, should Bell miss time with another injury, it’s his kick return average of 26.8 yards per return that really makes him an attractive addition to the roster.

The Steelers added yet another talented ball carrier to the depth chart when they selected James Conner with their third round compensatory pick during the 2017 NFL Draft. Conner, the type of running back the Steelers have thrived with over the years, has an ideal blend of power and speed at 6’1″/233lbs, and looks to be a perfect compliment to LeVeon Bell. What makes James Conner potentially worthy of being Bell’s primary backup as a rookie? beyond his evident talent, is his love for the game, determination and work ethic. Even while battling cancer, in the midst of chemo therapy, Conner was focused on working out and helping to make his Pitt teammates better. He should not be counted out for being named Bell’s primary backup by the end of the season.

Despite the year he missed, and almost another full year for him to return to full strength following his treatments, James Conner never once let up on his journey back to the field. Conner’s presence could very well be the end of any playing time for Fitzgerald Toussaint, who hasn’t been the same since his postseason fumble against Denver two years ago. While Toussaint is the only backup besides Knile Davis with meaningful game experience, he doesn’t offer up anything that Conner or Davis can’t provide. The best case scenario for Fitzgerald Toussaint would be to stick around as the fourth running back on the depth chart.

As of now, the other running backs who will be looking to compete for the fourth spot are Trey Williams (5’7″/200) – Texas A&M, Rushel Shell (5’10″/227) – WVU, and Terrell Watson (6’1″/240) – Azusa Pacific. The two most interesting prospects could be Rushel Shell and Terrell Watson. Shell, a highly recruited running back who bailed out on the Pitt Panthers and transferred to WVU, never lived up to his potential while in Morgantown, but seems motivated to do so since signing with the Steelers.

Terrell Watson, in 2015, spent the season on the Bengals practice squad. In 2016, Watson was released by the Browns a day after making the 53 man roster, and resigned to their practice squad the following day. He was later released and signed to Denver’s practice squad. When Denver released him, Watson signed to Philadelphia’s practice squad where he was eventually promoted to the active roster, scoring his first NFL touchdown in a January win over Dallas. After being released in May, Watson was signed by the Steelers.

Here is some interesting quotes from Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater about Terrell Watson in an article from 2013:

http://articles.latimes.com/2013/nov/11/sports/la-sp-1112-terrell-watson-20131112

Watson is facing NCAA Division II competition playing for Azusa Pacific, but Slater, who played three seasons at Jackson (Miss.) State with Payton and spent five years blocking for Dickerson, says he has “no doubt” Watson could play in the NFL.

“He has a blend of power and explosiveness that makes him a real sleek and dynamic back,” Slater says. “He’s rugged. He’s elusive if he has to be, unless he’s going to compromise yards. Then he will run you over.”

Watson has run for 1,582 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, including a school-record 302 yards and five touchdowns against Simon Fraser on Oct. 12.

Watson’s work ethic reminds Slater of Payton, his personality and demeanor remind him of Dickerson — “He’s very confident and very humble,” Slater says — and his football instincts remind him of Faulk.

“He understands everything,” Slater says. “He’ll come to the sideline when I’m making adjustments with the line and say, ‘This is what they’re doing, Coach. These two guys are coming here, they’re in this kind of coverage,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Let me sort his out, young man; that’s my job.”

Former NFL running back Christian Okoye had this to say about Terrell Watson:

Christian Okoye, the former Kansas City Chiefs running back who holds many of the school records Watson has broken or is about to break, believes Watson can play in the NFL if he improves his speed. Watson runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash — good for Division II, subpar for the NFL.

“He has the physical tools, the body,” says Okoye, who lives in Rancho Cucamonga and has attended several Cougars games. “He’s not a lightning-speed guy, but I know he can get faster with work.”

It sounds like the Steelers could have a potential diamond in the rough with Watson, and if they do, they could be as deep at the running back position as they have been in a very long time. While the idea may be to “turn loose the Juice”, it would be nice to have a few legitimate options behind him to provide the Steelers with the ability to reliably move the chains on the ground, unlike the past few years when, beyond Bell, there was nothing substantial behind DeAngelo Williams.

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