Sunday, October 28, 2012
Steelers suddenly dangerous with Dwyer
By Jamison Hensley
Running back Jonathan Dwyer gives Pittsburgh's offense a dangerous new dimension.
PITTSBURGH -- Much has been made of the Pittsburgh Steelers' dink-and-dunk offense and how the short passing game has taken away the explosiveness of the attack. After the Steelers' 27-12 win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday, I'm here to endorse the dink-and-Dwyer offense.
With a running game, the Steelers have the look of a dangerous team. The look of those 1934 bumble-bee throwback uniforms? They were almost as scary as the prospect of Ben Roethlisberger throwing over the top of a safety who has had to creep in because of Pittsburgh's ground attack.
Jonathan Dwyer, with 107 rushing yards against the Redskins, has produced two 100-yard games in two starts and three in just 13 NFL games. He became the first Steelers running back since Willie Parker in the first two weeks of the 2008 season to record at least 100 yards in back-to-back games. And he's averaging 6.7 yards per carry in his two starts.
All of a sudden, the Steelers have gone from nearly pushing the panic button to causing the division-leading Baltimore Ravens to sweat. Pittsburgh (4-3) has crept to within one game of Baltimore (5-2) primarily on the legs of Dwyer.
The Steelers gave the ball to Dwyer because they didn't have a choice. Their top two running backs, Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (ankle), have been sidelined the past two weeks.
Now, after what Dwyer has shown the past two games, the Steelers don't have a decision at starting running back. They can't take the ball back from Dwyer. He's breaking long gains. He's delivering the key run at the end of games. You have to keep feeding the ball to Dwyer until his play tells you otherwise.
"He's answered the call and taken advantage of opportunity," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "That's what we expect from all of our young people. He did the job today, but obviously, I read his name here when I talked about the list of injuries. So, I'm not going to speak too soon on that. We'll check the totality of all of the people involved and the healthy guys get the opportunities next week."
Dwyer's right quadricep muscle tightened up on that final drive and forced him to leave the game early. Dwyer, though, said he's fine. There's a chance Mendenhall could be ready for Sunday's game at the New York Giants, and Redman might be available after returning to practice this past week.
If all of the running backs are healthy, does Dwyer get the nod to be the starter?
"I'll see what they look like next week," Tomlin said. "You're not getting it today."
If Dwyer can go, he should be the Steelers' starter. I'm not sure it's even a question at this point. The Steelers' run game got off to its worst start in 62 years, totaling 195 yards in its first three games. In his past five quarters, Dwyer has produced 179 yards on the ground.
This isn't a push to make Dwyer the permanent starter for the rest of the season or even next year. The Steelers can always turn back to Mendenhall or Redman if Dwyer struggles or starts to fumble again. But Dwyer has earned the right to remain the starter heading into next Sunday.
What stands out about Dwyer is the combination of power and quickness. He can run in between the tackles like Redman and he can break a long one to the outside like Mendenhall. Dwyer isn't dazzling with great open-field moves. He's direct and simply produces.
How important is the running game for the Steelers? They are now 10-0 when they rush for at least 120 yards since the start of the 2011 season and 6-7 when they rush for fewer than that.
"That's the dynamic that we have to have," left guard Willie Colon said. "If we stay one dimensional, I think we kill ourselves. We got to be able to run the ball. When we stay efficient, they crowd the box and we got some stud receivers who can stretch the field. The sky is the limit."
No one knows Dwyer's ceiling at this point. The 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year lasted until the sixth round in the 2010 draft, and some of that fall had to do with rumblings that he wasn't dedicated enough.
Dwyer confirmed those fears when he reported to his first two training camps overweight, which led Tomlin to limit Dwyer's touches and playing time. This year, Dwyer reported in better condition and got more opportunities early until he made a costly fumble in Oakland on Sept. 23.
After sitting out the next two games following that turnover, Dwyer not only got a chance to suit up again but received his first start when Mendenhall and Redman were sidelined. Dwyer hasn't dropped the ball since and he's smart enough not to publicly campaign for a starting job.
"I'm not going to sit here and talk about that. I am going to just do what I have to do to help us win," the soft-spoken Dwyer said. "In all reality, I'm just trying to solidify myself around here and around the league as well. Knowing that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, I'm going to do whatever I have to do to live my dream every day."
While Dwyer didn't reach the end zone, he had a hand in finishing off the game for a second straight week. In the Steelers' last drive, he gained eight yards on second-and-7 and 13 yards on second-and-9 as the game nearly wound down to the two-minute warning.
It capped a 107-yard game for Dwyer, a performance that was impressive considering the opponent. While it was expected that Roethlisberger would have a big game against the NFL's worst pass defense, Dwyer broke runs against the league's No. 7 run defense that held teams to 85.3 yards rushing and 3.9 yards per carry.
"He runs hard," Roethlisberger said. "We know when we put the ball in his hands, he is going to give you everything he's got. He brings a little bit of power and a little bit of quickness. He brings a little bit of speed -- not a lot of speed. He just runs hard. He runs with a passion and he's fun to watch."
How Dwyer finishes this season could determine how the Steelers handle the running back position in the offseason. Dwyer is a restricted free agent just like Redman. Mendenhall will be an unrestricted free agent.
If Dwyer continues this run, he may be the Steelers' back for the long run.
"I knew that, if I stayed patient, my opportunity would come," Dwyer said. "It's just about using the opportunity to make a statement and taking advantage of it."
Dwyer has made a statement in two career starts. Now, the Steelers have to make one by keeping him as their starting running back.