AFC North: Felix Jones

PITTSBURGH -- This is the next in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at the all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our third look is at a position that has two a pair of intriguing additions.

Running back

Who is new: LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer. A market that was anything but bullish for running backs allowed the Steelers to land the bruising Blount and at a bargain rate (two years for $3.85 million). They pretty much went to the other end of the running back spectrum when they drafted the small but speedy Archer in the third round. He stands just 5-8 and weighs 173 pounds but Archer ran the 40-yard dash in 4.26 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.

Who is gone: Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling. Dwyer signed with the Cardinals shortly after the start of free agency and Jones remains unsigned. Stephens-Howling tore his ACL in the 2013 season opener and the drafting of Archer ended any chances of the Steelers re-signing the veteran scatback.

Returning starter: Le'Veon Bell. The second-round pick -- and second running back taken in the 2013 draft -- showed why the Steelers were so excited about him after just a couple of weeks of training camp. Bell broke Franco Harris' record for most yards from scrimmage by a rookie (1,259) despite missing the first three games with a foot injury. He also showed he is a back for every down given his polish as a receiver and willingness to block blitzing linebackers. Bell improved as a runner as he adjusted to the speed at this level and he has the patience and power to develop into a perennial 1,000-yard rusher.

Most significant addition: Blount. The 6-foot, 250-pounder gives the Steelers a proven back who can ease Bell's workload. Blount is also capable of handling the bulk of the carries if Bell misses any time because of an injury. The only question with Blount is how many carries he will receive with the Steelers committed to Bell and Archer also in the mix.

Most significant loss: Dwyer. He played his role well after re-signing with the Steelers last season, backing up Bell and also contributing on special teams. The Steelers, however, were clearly looking for an upgrade behind Bell and they appear to have gotten one in Blount.

On outside looking in: Alvester Alexander. The undrafted free agent spent the entire 2013 season on the practice squad, and he has his work cut out for him as far as convincing the Steelers to carry more than three running backs in 2014.

Hidden number: Of the 22 running backs who had more than 200 carries in 2013, only four had a lower yards per carry than the 3.5 yards Bell averaged on 244 carries.

Outlook: A position that had been a weakness through the first three games of 2013 has turned into a strength. Bell should only get better in his second season, and Archer offers a nice complement to him and Blount with his blazing speed. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers use Archer, whose versatility and pass-catching skills also allow him to play wide receiver.
PITTSBURGH – Add running back to the position at which the Steelers have a need.

Jonathan Dwyer has signed a one-year contact with the Arizona Cardinals, leaving the Steelers with depth issues behind Le’Veon Bell.

Dwyer wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday night:

Dwyer, released at the end of the 2013 preseason, re-signed with the Steelers in September and rushed for 197 yards on 49 carries while backing up Bell.

Dwyer, ironically, will provide depth at running back for the Cardinals following the retirement of former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall.

The only other running back on the Steelers' roster is Alvester Alexander, who spent all of last season on the practice squad.

Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling, who tore his ACL in the Steelers’ season opener last season, are both unrestricted free agents.

The Steelers have lost three free agents, with defensive end Al Woods signing with the Titans, tight end David Johnson signing with the Chargers and Dwyer becoming the latest former Steelers player to relocate to Arizona.

Grading the Steelers

November, 11, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Marked improvement from the New England debacle.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t flashy, but he didn’t need to be in completing 18 of 30 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown. Roethlisberger threw a bad interception early in the game when Bills safety Jairus Byrd read him the whole way on a deep pass to Markus Wheaton. Byrd’s interception set up a field goal that gave Buffalo its only lead of the game. Grade: C+

Running backs: The Steelers stayed committed to the run, and as a result they rushed for 136 yards. Le'Veon Bell averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, but he scored a touchdown. Reserves Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones combined for 54 yards on 10 carries. Grade: B

Receivers: Antonio Brown continues to build a strong case for the Pro Bowl, catching six passes for 104 yards. Brown set a team record for most receptions (67) through the first nine games of a season, but he needs a little more help. Emmanuel Sanders totaled just 13 yards on his four catches, and tight end Heath Miller was a non-factor in the passing game. Grade: B-

Offensive line: The Steelers used tackle Mike Adams as an extra tight end early and often, and the line more than held its own against Buffalo’s vaunted front. The Steelers’ 136 rushing yards were their second-most this season, and they shut out Bills sack maestro Mario Willliams. Williams, who entered the game with 11 sacks, did not even record a tackle against the Steelers. Grade: B

Defensive line: The Bills couldn’t establish the run, and it started up front for the Steelers. They controlled the line of scrimmage in holding the Bills to under 100 rushing yards and almost 50 below their season average. End Cameron Heyward, the third-year veteran who recorded a sack, has shined since becoming a starter. Grade: A-

Linebackers: Lawrence Timmons owned the middle of the field as he registered eight tackles and delivered a handful of jarring hits, including one on a sack of Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. The Steelers still aren’t getting enough pressure from their outside linebackers, though Jarvis Jones recorded his first career sack. Grade: B+

Secondary: The maligned unit bounced back in a big way after getting torched at New England. It allowed just two receptions of 10 yards or more, and the Steelers’ defensive backs were solid in tackling, whether it was after a catch or in run support. Ryan Clark's interception set up a field goal. Grade: A-

Special teams: Take away a couple subpar Mat McBriar punts, and this group was nearly flawless. Brown broke a big punt return for the third game in a row and Shaun Suisham was perfect on three field goal attempts. Four of Suisham’s six kickoffs went for touchbacks, though one also ended up out of bounds. The kick coverage teams were solid as usual. Grade: A-

Coaching: The Steelers were disciplined on defense, and they did not allow the Bills to run the ball. They stuck with the running game even though the offense got off to another slow start, and that commitment set up a second-quarter touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery. The one negative: the Steelers had to settle for field goals after Brown’s punt return and Clark’s interception gave the offense short fields. Grade: A-
PITTSBURGH -- Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 61 receptions, but the fourth-year wide receiver is looking to do even more to help the Steelers bounce back after a disastrous first half of the season.

“Maybe I need to find a way to help us win,” Brown said, “whether that’s taking a punt back, any difference to change the outcome of the game.”

Brown has been close to breaking a punt return for a touchdown, nearly scoring two weeks ago in Oakland and following a 44-yard punt return against the Raiders with a 24-yarder against the Patriots.

Next up for the Steelers is a Bills team that has struggled to cover punts.

Buffalo is 27th in the NFL in opponents’ punt return average (11.6 yards).

“We’ve been so close to popping one of these returns for a touchdown,” said linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, who is on the kickoff and punt return teams. “We’ve got to get A.B. free. We’ve got to get him in the end zone.”

Coach Mike Tomlin would no doubt be in favor of that as the Steelers have struggled to score touchdowns this season despite getting four of them in the 55-31 loss to the Patriots.

The Steelers have also been close to breaking big returns on kickoffs.

Felix Jones has a pair of returns of at least 40 yards, and Emmanuel Sanders came within inches of a 107-yard kickoff return against the Ravens.

Brown is the most obvious candidate to reach the end zone. He is 11th in the NFL in punt return average (10.4 yards) and is dynamic in the open field.

Sylvester said the punt return team has made it a goal to spring Brown for at least one touchdown return in the second half of the season.

“He’s due for a couple,” Sylvester said of Brown. “He’s been so close to breaking them. We’ve got to get him free.”

Steelers' Report Card

November, 4, 2013
Not quite Bluto Blutarsky on defense but not much better either:

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger threw for 400 yards, and he joined Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks in franchise history with 200 career touchdown passes. But he also committed three turnovers and missed what should have been an easy pitch and catch for a touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders in the second quarter. Grade: C

Running backs: Le’Veon Bell averaged 4.6 yards per carry and finished with 139 rushing and receiving yards combined. But the rookie was stopped behind the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-one early in the second quarter, and the Patriots took advantage of the short field to score their second touchdown of the game. Jonathan Dwyer added a 30-yard run on his only carry. : Grade: B-

Receivers: Hard to find a lot of fault with this group as the Steelers’ wide receivers consistently got open after the Steelers finally started attacking the Patriots’ cornerbacks. Their top three wideouts combined for 18 catches for 265 yards and all four of the Steelers’ touchdowns. Grade: B+

Offensive line: The unit acquitted itself fairly well despite the absence of right guard David DeCastro and the crowd noise that forced the Steelers to use a silent snap count for much of the game. The Steelers averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and Roethlisberger holding onto the ball too long accounted for at least two of his five sacks. Grade: B-

Defensive line: Teams are running right at the Steelers with Casey Hampton no longer clogging the middle, and New England gashed them for 197 rushing yards. End Cameron Heyward played as well as anyone defensively with a sack and two quarterback hurries, and he is only reason why this isn’t a failing grade. Grade: D

Linebackers: LaMarr Woodley couldn’t even manage a quarterback hurry despite lining up across from a new right tackle, and that offsets his eight tackles and fumble recovery. Lawrence Timmons recorded 11 tackles and Jason Worilds had a pair of sacks but the group struggled as a whole and didn’t put enough pressure on Tom Brady. Grade: D

Secondary: It didn’t get enough help from the front seven, but the Steelers’ defensive backs were simply atrocious, and no one seemed immune to getting beat – and beat badly. Speed is an issue, especially at safety and breakdowns that led to a couple of big pass plays were alarming. Grade: F

Special teams: The Steelers got a couple of nice returns from Felix Jones and Antonio Brown, respectively. But Mat McBriar unleashed what coach Mike Tomlin might refer to as a “junior varsity punt” at the worst time. McBriar hit a low line drive that Julian Edelman returned 43 yards near the end of the third quarter with the Steelers trailing 27-24. The Patriots scored a touchdown five plays later and never looked back. Grade: C-

Coaching: The Steelers again started slow, and they also allowed the Patriots to score touchdowns on all four of their fourth-quarter possessions. Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz scheme rattles or confuses no one these days, and the lack of discipline against the Patriots (three turnovers and eight penalties for 96 yards) is on Tomlin : Grade: F

Tomlin open to Steelers making a trade

October, 29, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers have already made two trades this season, and coach Mike Tomlin hasn’t ruled out the team making more moves before the 4 p.m. ET trading deadline today.

“I’m open to it,” Tomlin said of the Steelers making a trade. “We’ll see.”

The Steelers earlier traded for running back Felix Jones and left tackle Levi Brown, and Tomlin said he is open to evaluating any position as the team tries to bounce back from a 2-5 start.

Tomlin has already made changes in his starting lineup, and the latest one is at right outside linebacker.

Jason Worilds has moved ahead of rookie Jarvis Jones there. Tomlin benched Mike Adams after the fourth game of the season and Kelvin Beachum has started the past three games at left tackle.

Brown suffered a season-ending shoulder injury before playing a game for the Steelers.

Zoltan Mesko’s future with the team has been a source of speculation, and Tomlin sent mixed signals when it comes to the Steelers’ punter.

Inconsistency continues to plague Mesko as he bobbled a snap against the Raiders that resulted in a partially blocked punt and also had a 30-yard kick. But the left-footer also boomed several kicks in the 21-18 loss at Oakland, including one that the Steelers downed at the Raiders 1-yard line.

“Obviously he needs to perform better,” Tomlin said. “But along with the obvious negativity in the game I did think he rebounded well and really finished the game strong.”

When asked specifically if the Steelers are considering bringing in a replacement for Mesko, Tomlin said, “I’m not opposed to evaluating anyone at any position that’s capable of helping us get better.”

Teams typically work out free agents and evaluate them in the early part of the week, and Tomlin said, “We’re probably going to do some of that this week.”

Optimism for ground game belies numbers

October, 14, 2013
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The state of the Pittsburgh Steelers' running game is abysmal if you go strictly by the numbers.

The Steelers are averaging 3.1 yards per rush and 61.0 rushing yards per game. Only the lowly Jaguars are getting less out of their ground game on a weekly basis.

Felix Jones still leads the Steelers in rushing with 92 yards even though he has eight less carries than rookie Le'Veon Bell (91 rushing yards).

And the last time the Steelers rushed for 100 yards in a game -- as a team, not an individual -- came 11 months ago when the Ravens visited Heinz Field.

The Steelers will try to break a streak of 11 consecutive games of rushing for fewer than 100 yards Sunday when the Ravens return to Heinz Field. As grim as the early results have been there appears to be a growing sense of optimism surrounding the rushing attack.

Start with Bell.

The Steelers’ second-round pick in April gives Pittsburgh some much-needed stability at the position and he has the skill set to play every down and also be a factor in the passing game.

True Bell mustered just 34 yards on 16 carries against the Jets, but no one has run against Rex Ryan’s defense this season. In addition, it was only Bell’s second NFL game, and it showed several times as he appeared to miss cut back lanes created by the Steelers’ offensive line.

The former Michigan State star will only get better with experience, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley has enough faith with Bell that he stuck with the running game in the second half.

The Steelers ran the ball 17 times after halftime and threw it just 12 times. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wanted to run the ball near the end of the Steelers’ first win of the season so the offensive could get a “mindset” of running out a clock.

The Steelers moved the chains once during a final drive in which they ran the ball six consecutive times before punting.

Hey, it’s something to build on, no matter how baby the step.

So is the fact that Roethlisberger’s 55-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders was set up by a play-action fake to Bell.

Steelers badly need Bell to emerge at RB

September, 24, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said rookie running back Le'Veon Bell “perked up dramatically” late last week in practice.

Will his expected return to action have the same effect on a running game that has been one of the NFL’s least productive ones through the first three games of the season?

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicLe'Veon Bell looked good in training camp, but logged just four carries in the preseason before getting injured.
Tomlin did not commit to Bell starting against the Vikings, and the seventh-year coach said practice will dictate how much the latter plays in the international game that pits a pair of teams off to awful starts against one another.

Assuming Bell does not suffer a setback that would delay his return until after the bye, he can only help as the Steelers try to dig their way out of a very unSteelers-like 0-3 start.

Bell shined during training camp and looked well on his way to opening the season as the Steelers’ starting running back. Then knee and foot injuries sidelined the player who had never been hurt in college or high school.

The restart to Bell’s NFL career comes at a time when Felix Jones, who never fulfilled expectations in Dallas and was deemed expendable by Philadelphia, is atop the depth chart at running back.

Jones, whom the Steelers traded for on Aug. 23, is also the team’s leading rusher with 71 yards -- or seven less than Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had on his first carry of the season.

The former first-round pick has been a nice find by the Steelers and is averaging a healthy 4.2 yards per carry. But Jones is the bridge, albeit a dependable one, until Bell is ready to assume a workload befitting a starting NFL running back.

The Steelers will ease Bell back into action, and it is worth noting that he has only flashed potential to this point -- and had all of four carries in the preseason before going down with a mid-foot sprain.

But if Bell is as good as advertised he will again be given every opportunity to seize the job of feature back. And the Steelers badly need Bell to emerge as they have rushed for less than 100 yards in nine consecutive games dating back to last season.

Isaac Redman, who opened the season as the starting running, has slid to fourth on the depth chart. Jones and Jonathan Dwyer can help the running game but neither can carry it.

The Steelers drafted Bell in the second round last April to do just that.

And his NFL debut can’t come any sooner for a team that is averaging 51.7 rushing yards per game.

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 2

September, 17, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- An examination of four hot issues from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 20-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

[+] EnlargeFelix Jones
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanSteelers RB Felix Jones earned praise from coach Mike Tomlin after Monday night's game.
Stuck in neutral: The Steelers’ running game is a mess, and coach Mike Tomlin said no one is above blame for the team's 75 rushing yards in two games and its paltry 2.4 yards per carry average. The offensive line has to win more one-on-one battles, and the running backs have to take better advantage of the creases they do get. Tomlin did not say who will start Sunday at running back against the Chicago Bears, but he strongly indicated that Felix Jones will get the nod. Jones rushed for only 37 yards on 10 carries at Cincinnati, but Tomlin liked the decisions the sixth-year veteran made while running against one of the better front sevens in the NFL. “I was encouraged by some of the things Felix Jones was able to do,” Tomlin said, “and will be able to do moving forward.”

Biding their time: Running back Jonathan Dwyer received just one carry against the Bengals, a team he gashed for 122 rushing yards in the AFC North rivals’ first meeting last season. Rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton also played sparingly on Monday night, and the third-round draft pick is still in search of his first NFL catch. Tomlin said the limited roles had little to do with Dwyer and Wheaton and could be mostly attributed to the Steelers running 55 plays compared to 79 for the Bengals. More than 20 of those plays came when the Steelers ran their no-huddle offense, which doesn’t allow them to substitute. As a result there were very few opportunities left for reserves such as Dwyer and Wheaton. “We’re just not getting enough snaps,” Tomlin said.

Staying within yourself: Free safety Ryan Clark did not sugarcoat the Steelers’ first 0-2 start under Tomlin. On the contrary, Clark said the Steelers won’t win a game this season if they don’t get better. What troubled Clark after the Steelers gave up more than 400 yards of total offense against the Bengals and did not register a sack or force a turnover is that the defense got away from the disciplined approach that has been vital to its success. The concern moving forward is that the offense’s struggles will put even more pressure on the defense and that some players will take it upon themselves to try and make something happen. “Once you start doing that then you get out of position, you leave a gap and they get four yards on first down,” Clark said. “For us it’s about doing what we’re taught no matter the score. We can’t scoreboard watch.” Said Tomlin, “We’re capable of fixing these things. We can’t overreact.”

Not all was bad: Special-teams play, shaky during the preseason, was an unequivocal bright spot for the Steelers in their loss at Cincinnati. Jones and Antonio Brown turned in long kickoff and punt returns, respectively. The Steelers' kick coverage teams, meanwhile, bottled up Brandon Tate and Adam Jones, allowing a total of 44 return yards. Rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has been a beast on special teams. He and the rest of the Steelers' special-teamers will be tested Sunday night. Chicago’s Devin Hester is one of the best kick returners in NFL history.

Jonathan Dwyer could be upgrade at RB

September, 9, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Another injury at running back led to the Steelers bringing Jonathan Dwyer back to Pittsburgh. The sorry state of the ground game may compel coach Mike Tomlin to play Dwyer if not feature him when the Steelers visit Cincinnati next Monday night.

The Steelers generated next to nothing on the ground in their season opener, and starting running back Isaac Redman fumbled twice, losing one of them after the offense had driven inside the Titans 10-yard line.

Redman spent considerable time on the sidelines after the second fumble, and he may not have gotten back into the game had LaRod Stephens-Howling not gone down with a knee injury.

When asked after the 16-9 loss to the Titans whether he expects to start against the Bengals, Redman said, “Coach Tomlin told me on the sidelines he still has all the confidence in the world, so we’ll see.”

The competition at running back will at least be wide open this week in practice, and there is no reason why the Steelers shouldn’t give Dwyer a long look.

He was the Steelers’ most talented runner when they released him on Aug. 31 and instead kept the recently acquired Felix Jones.

And the Steelers don’t have many other options until rookie Le’Veon Bell returns from a mid-foot sprain, an injury that could sideline the second-round draft pick for a couple of more games.

Jones probably takes over as the Steelers’ third-down back with Stephens-Howling out for the rest of the season.

That leaves Dwyer, who led the Steelers with 623 yards last season, and Redman to battle for the starting job. And the latter certainly didn’t help himself with his ball-security issues against the Titans or the 9 yards he mustered on 8 carries.

Another signing on Monday provided clarity on the offensive line and probably immediate help for the beleaguered unit.

Fernando Velasco started 13 games at center for the Titans last season, and the 6-foot-4, 320-pounder looks like the obvious choice to step in for Maurkice Pouncey.

Cody Wallace, whom the Steelers signed on Sept. 1, is better suited to provide depth at center and guard. Kelvin Beachum, who took over at center for the injured Pouncey on Sunday, is more valuable as the Steelers’ top reserve along the offensive line.

They also want to use Beachum as a sixth lineman/eligible receiver, at least until starting tight end Heath Miller returns from reconstructive knee surgery.
PITTSBURGH -- The starting job at running back, at least for now, became Isaac Redman's as soon as the Pittsburgh Steelers cut Jonathan Dwyer.

Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff simply have no other viable starting options with Le'Veon Bell out and Felix Jones still trying to find his way around Pittsburgh.

Jones has looked terrific, and better than the Steelers could have hoped when they acquired him from the Eagles. But the sixth-year veteran has been with the team little more than a week and is still learning the offense.

Jones' speed and burst figure to be a good complement to Redman's power, and LaRod Stephens-Howling looks secure in the role of third-down back, giving the Steelers another chance-of-pace runner.

The player Redman ultimately has to worry about losing most of his carries to is Bell.

The Steelers will give the rookie second-round draft pick every opportunity to win the job of feature back -- something the former Michigan State star was on his way to doing until knee and foot injuries sidetracked him.

Redman said Monday that he plans to make the most of his opportunity. Probably Redman's most realistic hope is that he plays well enough to convince the coaches that he should be a part of the running game even after Bell is ready to take over as the starter.

In other words, fantasy owners, don't rush to add Redman to your team unless you need a short-term fix at running back.

If Redman needed a reminder as to how quickly things can change in the NFL, the fourth-year veteran got it last Sunday when the Steelers waived Dwyer, who led the team in rushing in 2012 and this preseason.

“He was a good player, a good kid, no problems around here character-wise, and I just wish him the best of luck,” Redman said. "It's the nature of the game."
PITTSBURGH – Picking 48 out of 53 is excellent by almost any measure. Projecting 53-man NFL rosters, which I did with the Steelers on Friday, is not one of them. The reason: So many of the players who make the roster are a given before a team's final cuts. Here are my misses and what I was thinking:
  • Jonathan Dwyer, RB: I didn't see this one coming even though Felix Jones' play generated speculation that Dwyer could be in trouble. I thought the final spot at running back would come down to Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling, since they are similar-type backs. Obviously the Steelers coaches had had enough of the talented but maddening Dwyer.
  • Alameda Ta'amu, NT: The 2012 fourth-round draft pick was beaten out by Hebron Fangupo. I thought the Steelers would keep Ta'amu because they invested a relatively high draft pick in him. He still has practice-squad eligibility, so don't be surprised if Ta'amu is signed there Sunday.
  • Alan Baxter, OLB: This had to be one of the tougher cuts for coach Mike Tomlin and his staff. Baxter was a force rushing the passer in the preseason, but special-teams considerations are why the Steelers kept Chris Carter over the undrafted rookie. Baxter is sure to end up on the practice squad if another team doesn't sign him.
  • Marshall McFadden, ILB: I had the Steelers keeping three backups at inside linebacker, and McFadden was the odd man out as rookie sixth-round pick Vince Williams and Kion Wilson made the team. McFadden still has practice-squad eligibility, so his time in Pittsburgh might not be done.
  • Terry Hawthorne, CB: I put the rookie fifth-round pick on the 53-man roster based on the investment the Steelers made in him but they went with Isaiah Green as their fifth cornerback. Offseason knee surgery really limited Hawthorne during training camp, and he obviously didn't show the coaches enough. Hawthorne is another candidate for the practice squad.

Running back Jonathan Dwyer has good vision. He is light on his feet for a running back who is listed at 229 pounds but often weighed much more than that, particularly during the offseason. Dwyer also had success in the NFL, which is why he probably won't be out of work for long.

He was the biggest surprise cut as the Pittsburgh Steelers pared their roster to 53 players. His release looks like a curious one, if not a head-scratcher, for a team that will be without feature back-in-waiting Le'Veon Bell for the first part of the regular season.

With Bell sidelined by a mid-foot sprain, Dwyer was arguably the Steelers' most talented runner. A ground game that ranked 26th in the NFL last season (96.1 rushing yards per game) needs all the help it can get until Bell is ready to take over as the No. 1 back.

So why is Dwyer, who led the team with 623 rushing yards last season, no longer with the Steelers? It simply came down to trust, and Dwyer having squandered too much of it because of weight and fumbling issues.

It didn't help Dwyer that Felix Jones looked better than anyone could have expected after the Steelers acquired the sixth-year veteran on Aug. 23. Jones played well in two preseason games. He made the team despite having less than a week to convince them he can help them after underachieving in Dallas and not even making it through a preseason in Philadelphia.

But Dwyer's release was more about the former sixth-round draft pick and less about Jones' strong closing argument in Carolina -- where he rushed for 58 yards on 14 carries last Thursday night.

What seemed like a harmless play in the Steelers' final preseason game in fact summed up why the Steelers became fed up with Dwyer.

He had a careless fumble at the end of a run, one that didn't cost the Steelers because center John Malecki alertly pounced on it. In the end miscues like that cost Dwyer dearly -- and are why he was among the players deemed expendable when the Steelers finalized their 53-man roster.
PITTSBURGH -- The more I think about it, as I try to project the Steelers' 53-man roster, the more I wonder if Felix Jones making the team would come at the expense of LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Jones had less than a week to state his case after the Steelers traded for the former first-round pick, and he clearly put himself in the discussion at running back after rushing for 56 yards on 14 carries Thursday night at Carolina.

As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the 25-10 loss to the Panthers, “I thought Felix helped himself. His pedigree showed. His natural run instincts showed.”

Did they show enough to run someone like Stephens-Howling off the team?

I don't think the Steelers keep an extra running back even with Le'Veon Bell out with a mid-foot sprain. They are going to need an extra tight end with Heath Miller likely to come of the PUP list but also take up a roster spot until he is ready to return from a major knee injury.

There is speculation that Jonathan Dwyer could be in trouble if Jones makes the Steelers but consider this: If the Steelers cut Dwyer and Isaac Redman is out with an injury -- he has been hampered by a stinger -- Jones and Stephens-Howling would be your two running backs.

As maddening as Dwyer can be, I think he also may be the Steelers' most talented runner, at least until Bell returns.

Jones and Stephens-Howling, meanwhile, are similar players. Both are smaller backs who can also return kickoffs and can catch the ball out of the backfield.

Why keep both unless the Steelers want another running back until Bell returns? That may be a question the Steelers are pondering with at least some of the cuts coming later today.

I will post my 53-man projected roster early this afternoon.