PITTSBURGH – Saturday night was supposed to be the dawn of a new age for Steelers running backs.
Little did anyone know it would be veteran LaRod Stephens-Howling, not prized rookie Le’Veon Bell, providing that glimpse of sunlight.
Bell, who missed practices during the week with a sore left knee, was a surprise scratch, so Stephens-Howling, signed in the offseason as a kick returner and third-down back, got plenty of work in the Steelers’ preseason opener against the New York Giants at Heinz Field.
The Johnstown native and former Pitt star didn’t disappoint, gaining 40 yards on seven first quarter carries and adding his name to the mix in the Steelers’ already crowded backfield.
Bell, the Steelers’ second-round draft pick, injured his left knee in practice Monday. He returned to practice later in the week, but head coach Mike Tomlin said via team spokesman Burt Lauten he didn’t see enough of the rookie to warrant using him in the preseason opener.
Tomlin said Thursday he expected to mix in Bell with his starters early in the game, but with three preseason games remaining, he’ll have plenty of time to evaluate the rookie before the regular season opener Sept. 9 against Tennessee.
“He is going to be fine,” Tomlin said of Bell. “I just didn’t want to start his career out on less than ideal circumstances from a health standpoint.
“We’re going to be patient there.”
Regardless of who was running the ball for the Steelers, they had to be happy with the results.
After averaging just 96.1 yards rushing per game last season, the Steelers went into the offseason looking for ways to improve their anemic attack.
Stephens-Howling, a 5-7, 185-pound scat back, was added after spending the first four seasons of his career with the Arizona Cardinals.
Bell, a 6-1, 244-pound bruiser, was brought to battle Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer for playing time.
And a new outside zone blocking scheme was put in place to better take advantage of the young, athletic offensive linemen the Steelers have accumulated in recent drafts.
The early returns Saturday were good. The Steelers ran the ball 11 times in the first quarter, gaining 56 yards. The Steelers had three games in 2012 where they didn’t gain more than 56 yards and three others where they gained just a handful more than that.
As offensive coordinator Todd Haley said this week, the Steelers weren’t very good in the running game and had to get better.
With wide receiver Mike Wallace now in Miami and tight end Heath Miller sidelined for the time being while recovering from a knee injury suffered late last season, the Steelers started a lineup against the Giants that included just one player – Antonio Brown – who scored more than two touchdowns for them in 2012. Stephens-Howling, however, did score four in Arizona.
Until Miller returns – and that’s unlikely to happen until midseason – they have to find a way to cobble an offense together. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can’t do it by himself.
Adding a rushing attack to the equation would certainly help.
Was it a perfect performance in the running game? Certainly not. Surely, the Steelers would like to get a good look at Bell before they pronounce their running game fixed. There’s still time for that.
But Saturday’s performance was a step in the right direction.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org