NFL Nation: LeGarrette Blount

PHOENIX -- General manager Kevin Colbert admitted there is some unknown when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers' only free-agent signing as far as outside players.

And it has little or nothing to do with running back DeAngelo Williams (pictured) residing on the wrong side of 30 or the fact that he will be entering his 10th NFL season in 2015.

The question with Williams is how he will adjust to backing up Le'Veon Bell, a role that could come with fluctuating playing time and limited touches.

The Steelers tried to pair a veteran back last season with Bell and it failed miserably as LeGarrette Blount pouted his way out of Pittsburgh after his role in the offense diminished.

The Steelers have essentially hit a reset with the signing of Williams, and Colbert said there is one major difference compared to when they signed Blount.

"After his rookie year I think you could say (Bell) was a good back," Colbert said. "After last year I think everybody can agree he’s a very good back. I think someone coming in has a better understanding of who (Bell) is, or they should."

Colbert said the Steelers won’t know how Williams deals with a limited role until he is dealing with the reality of it.

But the Carolina Panthers' all-time leading rusher received a strong endorsement from quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner, who recruited Williams to Memphis and coached him there. And Williams said all of the right things while the Steelers were courting him.

"Meeting him and hearing Randy talk about his character and his willingness to be a contributor really sealed the deal for us," Colbert said. "And then to bring him in, visit with him and have him say the things that he said about trying to win a championship, that was important. We’ll see how it goes."

Williams, who turns 32 next month, will likely start the first two games of the season with Bell facing a suspension for violating the personal conduct policy. Colbert said the Steelers see Williams as more than just injury insurance at running back after Bell serves his suspension.

"The starting running back, I don’t care how good they are it’s a little hard to play every down as the starter in this league at that position," Colbert said. "So you want to have someone that’s been there, done that, but is still not worn out either. You still want some life and you want him to accept the role that we presented. I think that anybody coming in it’s a different scenario than it was last year."

DeAngelo Williams couldn’t resist singing for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner last Friday.

And “Reunited” proved to be a fitting choice after the veteran running back did just that with Fichtner.

“I don’t know if he enjoyed my rendition,” said Williams, who played at Memphis when Fichtner was the offensive coordinator there, “but I thought it was pretty good.”

Williams hit all the right notes after signing a two-year contract with the Steelers.

Then again, so did LeGarrette Blount last year after signing with the Steelers.

He became fast friends with Le'Veon Bell and talked about the pair forming one of the top running back duos in the league. Blount got along well with his new teammates and seemed to accept playing behind Bell after sharing time with multiple backs the previous season in New England.

Reality hit once the season started and Bell emerged as one of the most complete and dynamic running backs in the NFL. His breakout season came at the expense of Blount’s playing time, and Blount did not last the season with the Steelers.

Will it be different this time after the Steelers signed another proven running back who is at least used to sharing carries?

The Steelers obviously think so after moving so quickly to sign Williams.

And the former Carolina Panthers back willingly signed up for what may be a most unusual role.

Williams could start the first two games of the 2015 season and get the bulk of the carries. But after Bell returns from an expected suspension stemming from an arrest last August for marijuana possession and driving under the influence, there will be limited snaps for Williams the rest of the way.

Bell, after all, is an every-down back who is just as important to the passing attack as he is the ground game.

“The sky is the limit for that guy,” Williams said of Bell, who turned 23 last month. “I just want to come in and help wherever I can to make us better as a team.”

It is easy to say the right things now, but there is one major difference between the signings of Williams, the Panthers’ all-time leading rusher, and Blount.

Blount joined the Steelers after Bell averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a rookie. Blount clearly expected some sort of time share in the backfield with Bell.

Williams signed with the Steelers after Bell rushed for 1,361 yards and led all NFL running backs last season with 854 receiving yards. Williams has to know the offense will run through Bell, even with the credentials he brings to the Steelers.

Perhaps that is why Williams, who turns 32 next month, said he will accept any role with his new team.

“Whether that means me coming off the bench, giving the offensive line water, making sure (quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger’s towel is dry so he can wipe his hands and throw better,” Williams said. “Whatever it takes for us to win a Super Bowl, I’m willing and able to do it.”

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin infamously said before he had coached a game in Pittsburgh that the Steelers would run Willie Parker “until the wheels fall off.”

Both happened in 2007 when Parker went down in the penultimate game of the regular reason.

Parker was leading the NFL with 1,316 rushing yards when he broke his lower right leg against the St. Louis Rams. “Fast Willie” was never the same after returning from the injury, as he played just two more seasons with the Steelers before exiting the NFL in 2010, a couple of months before his 30th birthday.

Do the Steelers run a similar risk with Le’Veon Bell, who is on pace for around 300 carries and 90 receptions in his second NFL season? Probably not, at least in the short term, as the Steelers will lean heavily on Bell as they try to emerge from a pack of 7-5 teams in the AFC.

The offense has to continue to run through Bell, especially with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggling with his accuracy and with three of the Steelers’ final four games coming in cold-weather cities, including two in Pittsburgh. As Tomlin pointed out, Bell is a sturdy back who is built for a heavy workload.

Parker, meanwhile, was a smaller back, and the injury that compromised his blinding speed was more the result of an unfortunate hit than overuse. Losing a step because of the serious leg injury was the biggest reason why Parker flamed out after three straight 1,000-yard seasons.

The concern that the Steelers should have with Bell is not that he will suffer an injury over the next month, but how the pounding he takes adversely affects his productivity over the course of his career.

Those hits, after all, add up and start to chip away at a running back's speed.

The Steelers have to strike a balance of featuring Bell in their offense without eventually wearing him down to maximize the seasons at which he plays at a high level.

They thought they had done that when they signed LeGarrette Blount in March. But he pouted his way out of Pittsburgh, and the Steelers have no choice right now but to rely almost exclusively on Bell, who is too good of a blocker and receiver to come off the field on passing downs.

They can address their need for a back who can lighten Bell’s load in the offseason. That player will be found in free agency or the draft, if he is not already in the Steelers’ locker room.

Tomlin is fond of saying he “doesn’t live in his fears," and for now, that means riding Bell as far as the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder and the offense take the Steelers.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As difficult as they might be to recall, there have been fourth-quarter defensive stands by the Green Bay Packers. And they've even come this season, when Aaron Rodgers and his offensive mates have been lauded for leading this team into first place in the NFC North.

There was the defensive stop in Week 2 against the New York Jets. (Remember their timeout fiasco that wiped out a touchdown?)

There was the late-game stand in Week 6, when the Miami Dolphins couldn't convert a third down and gave the ball back to Rodgers, who directed the game-winning drive.

Nice moments to be sure, but they came against Geno Smith and Ryan Tannehill.

This time, it was Tom Brady.

Three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.

Two-time NFL MVP Tom Brady.

And stop him they did when it mattered most in Sunday's 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots (9-3) in front of a Lambeau Field record crowd of 78,431.

Without a sack for more than three-and-a-half quarters, the Packers finally brought Brady down. Mike Daniels and Mike Neal dumped him on third-and-9 from the Packers' 20-yard line with 2:40 remaining, and the Patriots never got the ball back.

"We finally seem to be carrying our own weight, in light of how well the offense has been playing," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "It's great to see that we can string these together, and we're not riding the roller coaster that we've done maybe in the first half of the season.

"We're feeling good. We've got playmakers on defense. There's still room for improvement, but it's just about putting it together because we feel we can be just as good as anyone else out there."

Maybe now it's safe to say Matthews is on to something.

For perhaps the first time since their 15-1 season in 2011, the Packers might be the NFL's best team. They finally beat a great quarterback, and they did so when their own MVP quarterback and his offense came up empty in the touchdown department during four red zone possessions. With four games remaining, the Packers (9-3) find themselves tied with the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles for the best record in the NFC.

After Sunday, the Packers' defense needs to apologize for nothing. Sure, the Packers failed to take the ball away, which has been their M.O. this season. They let Brady throw for 245 yards and two touchdowns. They let tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman each catch seven passes. And they let running back LeGarrette Blount average 5.8 yards per carry.

No, they couldn't get to Brady, though they came close several times.

Then they did when it counted.

Out of a four-man rush, Neal beat left tackle Nate Solder to the outside and got the first hand on Brady. Daniels, who shed left guard Dan Connolly, helped Neal finish off Brady. Coach Bill Belchick opted for a field goal that Stephen Gostkowski pushed wide right from 47 yards, and Rodgers & Co. ran out the remaining time just as they did to preserve a three-point victory at the Minnesota Vikings a week earlier.

Against the Vikings, however, the Packers' defense surrendered a 13-play, 79-yard touchdown drive that forced the offense to run out the final 3:23.

"If you had told me we were going to hold them to 21, I probably would have felt pretty good about the opportunity to win the game," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "So, yeah, I thought our defense did a lot of good things there."

This wasn't the Jets or the Dolphins. This wasn't a quarterback who since was benched (Smith) or struggling to win consistently (Tannehill). This was Brady and the Patriots (9-3), who brought a seven-game win streak to Lambeau.

"You had the No. 1 [scoring] offense in the NFL coming into our house, under the lights, with a very, very dangerous lineup of men, with a coach who's going to make sure they get after it every single play," Daniels said. "So to get a victory against a team that is so well disciplined, so well coached, with as many weapons as they have, that's huge. That's huge. You've got to look at yourself and say, 'Man, we did a heck of a job. Let's make sure it's more definitive next time.'"
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pointed out a fact about what has to be the youngest backfield in the NFL.

Le'Veon Bell, who is second in the NFL with 951 rushing yards, is actually younger than his two understudies.

Bell is 22 while rookies Dri Archer and Josh Harris are each 23 years old.

“We’ve got a young position group but you look around football and young backs impact games in a significant way and a positive way week in and week out,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.

That trend is why Tomlin said he is “not reluctant at all” to lean more on Archer, who has eight NFL carries, and Harris, who has yet to play in an NFL game, as the Steelers move forward without LeGarrette Blount.

“Just because Dri has a limited number of carries and Josh has none doesn’t mean they can’t be significant contributors to our efforts not only this week but moving forward. And I know both guys work with that in mind and I don’t think either guy is lacking confidence,” Tomlin said. “I don’t think the group that works with them is lacking confidence in either guy.”

Bell certainly isn’t, even though the 5-foot-8, 173-pound Archer has yet to make a significant impact despite possessing world-class speed. Archer has rushed for 41 yards on eight carries and caught five passes for 4 yards.

“A lot of smaller guys just want to depend on their speed all of the time and run outside; he’s a guy that likes running in between the tackles,” Bell said of Archer. “I won’t say he’s a guy who will get 30 carries a game -- his frame won’t hold that -- but he’s definitely a running back. He’s a slasher, a one-cut go guy and uses his speed when he needs to.”

Bell also offered a scouting report on Harris, whom the Steelers promoted from the practice squad last Tuesday after waiving Blount.

“Josh is going to surprise a lot of people because he’s a thicker-type of guy and a lot of people don’t really understand how fast he is and he’s a guy that’s still learning,” Bell said. “He’s going to be ready when his time [comes].”

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers-LeGarrette Blount union is not going to end well.

The only question after Blount reportedly left the field before the end of the Steelers' 27-24 win against the Tennessee Titans is whether it ends sooner rather than later.

Blount couldn't be bothered to stick around for a win that Le'Veon Bell, his best friend on the team, helped deliver because he didn't receive one carry Monday night at LP Field.

The selfish act screamed the kind of me-first attitude that may explain why Blount is with his fourth team in five NFL seasons even though he is averaging 4.6 yards per carry for his career.

Cutting ties with Blount, who picked up an early strike with the Steelers in August when he and Bell were charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana, would easily be addition by subtraction.

The Steelers probably would love nothing more than to get Blount as far away from Bell as possible -- and to jettison the kind of attitude that might poison younger players.

Releasing Blount, who signed a two-year, $3.85 million deal last March, wouldn't put the Steelers in a tough place from a salary-cap standpoint because they only guaranteed his $975,000 signing bonus. If the Steelers release Blount before the end of this season or in the offseason he will count just $475,000 against their 2015 salary cap.

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
Bill Streicher/USA TODAY SportsIn 11 games played for the Steelers this season, LeGarrette Blount has 130 fewer carries and 685 fewer yards than teammate Le'Veon Bell.
That is a pittance.

The problem with the math when it comes to cutting Blount before the end of this season is the Steelers simply don't have many bodies -- or options -- at running back.

Rookie Dri Archer is the No. 3 back behind Bell and Blount and the scatback has played so sparingly that he is averaging just over one carry per game.

Bell, as he showed in his trucking of the Titans, is fully capable of handling a full workload. And the second-year man gets a bye week to rest up before the Steelers play their final five games of the regular season.

But if Bell were to go down for an injury for an extended period of time and the Steelers had only Archer in reserve -- and whatever back they signed off the street if they released Blount -- the season might go with him.

The short-term risk may just be worth it in the long run considering the message it would send.

But it is probably not one the Steelers are willing to take just yet because they are 7-4 and just percentage points out of first place in the AFC North.

Blount, however, can probably count on some terse words from coach Mike Tomlin, a fine of some sort and maybe even a suspension unless he has some plausible explanation for why he left the field early.

Tomlin also can point out that even though Blount's days in Pittsburgh are probably numbered, he better be on his best behavior the rest of the season.

Blount, after all, is going to have to convince yet another team to take a chance on him. The only question is when that time will come.
PITTSBURGH -- Le'Veon Bell is quietly building a strong case for MVP consideration.

The Pittsburgh Steelers running back ranks among the NFL's top three in rushing yards (599), yards from scrimmage (938) and first down (44).

And quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Bell, who has played in just 20 NFL games, is only going to get better.

"I don't even think we've used him to the full potential," Roethlisberger said. "When we go no-huddle and I'm calling the plays I like to get him out in empty sets because you can utilize him in mismatches. I still think the best is yet to come from him."

One of Bell's best attributes is his versatility and he is as comfortable catching the ball after lining up as a wideout as he out of the backfield. Bell caught eight passes for 88 yards in the Steelers' 30-23 win over the Houston Texans last Monday night, and his 43-yard catch-and-run served as the catalyst in a 24-point explosion late in the second quarter.

Bell is not even halfway through his second NFL season but he has already set a Steelers record for most yards from scrimmage (2,197 yards) after two seasons. The 2013 second-round pick needs just 295 yards to pass Franco Harris for the most rushing yards by a Steelers player in his first two seasons.

Bell is also close to another milestone.

If the 6-1, 225-pounder gain 50 yards from scrimmage Sunday against the visiting Indianapolis Colts he will pass Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis for the most yards from scrimmage by a Steelers player in the first eight games of a season since 1970, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Bell's emergence has led to fewer carries for LeGarrette Blount, who was signed in March to complement Bell, but it doesn't appear that the Steelers are overworking him.

Bell is averaging just under 22 touches per game and the Michigan State product said he has learned this season to avoid hard hits, something that should also allow him to thrive while weathering the grind of an NFL season.

"We don't want to run him until the wheels fall off but you've got to have him out there because he can do a little bit of everything," Roethlisberger said, "and that's why I think he's one of the best all-around backs in the game."

CLEVELAND -- Ben Roethlisberger beat the Cleveland Browns in 18 of his first 19 starts against them, including once while playing on only one good leg. He has so gleefully tormented the team that passed on drafting him in 2004 that what transpired Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium is proof something is very wrong with Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger completed just 21 of 42 passes in a 31-10 loss to the Browns and he led the Pittsburgh Steelers to one touchdown -- a late, meaningless one at that. The 11th-year veteran struggled with his accuracy so much, and in weather that was ideal for football, that Roethlisberger may have had trouble hitting Lake Erie even if he had been standing on its shores.

He was that bad in the loss that dropped the Steelers to 3-3, and he knew it.

“I hold myself to a higher standard and I’ve got to be better,” Roethlisberger said.

That is two games in a row Roethlisberger has not played well. That and the continued disconnect between the yards the Steelers are piling up and the meager numbers they are posting on scoreboards are sure to renew questions about the union between Roethlisberger and third-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

Something is amiss with an offense that has managed just 20 points in the past two weeks, and the Roethlisberger-Haley dynamic is usually where disgruntled fans point first when the Steelers struggle.

The play calling has been curious with the Steelers becoming pass-happy when they were inside the Jaguars' 20-yard line last Sunday and then going to the other extreme against the Browns.

Haley has to take his share of blame for the offense's struggles but certainly not all of it.

A blown assignment up front on an early third-down run from the Browns' 3-yard line left LeGarrette Blount no chance to score, and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

On a third down from Cleveland's 17-yard line in the second quarter, Roethlisberger threw a pass that Markus Wheaton clearly was not expecting. The incompletion forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal attempt that holder Brad Wing botched.

The game turned on those two plays as the Steelers had been in command before the ill-fated field goal attempt. Yet the Steelers might not have had to attempt a field goal had Roethlisberger and Wheaton been in sync, something they weren’t all day.

Roethlisberger threw 11 passes Wheaton’s way and he caught only four of them.

“I think we had a good plan,” Roethlisberger said. “We came in with the right attitude and mindset. I didn’t play well enough. It’s very frustrating. We’re all frustrated but we’ll stay together.”

Such solidarity following a bitter loss was the one place where all of the Steelers’ offensive players were actually in the same place -- at least publicly.

Roethlisberger took the blame for the loss. Wheaton said Roethlisberger covered for him in regard to the communication issues the two had against the Browns. Running back Le’Veon Bell said to point the finger at him for the offense’s struggles.

“I think I’m frustrated like we all are because we are capable of moving the ball and possessing the ball, but the points aren’t reflective of that,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

When asked if the Steelers are going about playing offense the right way -- a thinly veiled reference to whether Haley is the right coach to lead it -- Tomlin said, “I am sure of it but we are not executing. We’ve got to look at all areas.”

They have to start by looking at how to get Roethlisberger to play better.

The Steelers' plan of remaining competitive while they rebuild a once fearsome defense hinges on Roethlisberger keeping them in games because he is a top-tier quarterback.

He has looked like anything but a franchise quarterback the past two weeks.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell has been the breakout star three weeks into the NFL season.

The second-year man leads the AFC with 315 rushing yards and his 5.9 yards per carry is the highest among all players with more than 30 carries.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonLe'Veon Bell averaged 7.0 yards rushing on 21 carries in Pittsburgh's Week 3 game at Carolina.
The dynamic running that has powered the NFL's best rushing attack has its roots in a talk Bell had with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in March 2013.

The two met at Michigan State the night before Spartans' pro day and Tomlin told Bell he would probably have to play at a lower weight to succeed at the next level.

"He bought into that," Tomlin said.

Indeed, Bell, who played at close to 250 pounds in college, showed up at Steelers' rookie minicamp a week after they drafted him and weighed in at 244 pounds.

Bell dropped about 20 more pounds over the course of his rookie season and is currently at the weight that, to paraphrase Tomlin, obviously agrees with him.

"He ended last year in the mid-220s. He reported back this year in the mid-220s," Tomlin said. "He has shown he is committed to maintaining a level of conditioning over the course of a 12-month calendar and he has taken off from there. I think his play is reflecting that."

Is it ever.

Bell, who uses patience to set up his blocks, has also shown the kind of quickness and burst that was not evident until the end of last season when the 2013 second-round pick was finally healthy after missing the first three games because of a sprained foot.

He is second in the NFL in rushing, and with the offense running through Bell the Steelers lead the league in rushing with 163.3 yards per game.

Bell is not the only reason why the Steelers have dramatically improved in running the ball after averaging 86.4 rushing yards per game last season.

LeGarrette Blount is averaging 7.8 yards per carry, and he ripped off a 51-yard run in the Steelers' 37-19 win against the Carolina Panthers. Bell had broken free for an 81-yard run earlier in that game.

Last season the Steelers' longest run was 43 yards, and the big runs turned in by Bell and Blount against the Panthers are part of the mounting evidence that Pittsburgh has the best running back tandem in the NFL.

"He's really another starting running back," Bell said of Blount. "He could go anywhere and start."

And, Bell said, don't forget about Dri Archer.

The rookie running back has been out since spraining his ankle in the Steelers' season opener. But his speed and versatility allow the Steelers to use a bunch of different formations and force teams to account for Archer, who may play Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"You've got to respect him because he's arguably the fastest player in the league," Bell said. "We all know what (Archer) can do. He gets the ball in open space, he's going to be gone. He and (Steelers wide receiver) Darrius Heyward-Bey are the fastest two players I've ever seen live. We've got plenty of weapons. This offense is only going to get better."
PITTSBURGH -- Will Johnson said he will be ready if the Steelers need him to do more than just block tonight against the Ravens.

Johnson, a fullback/tight end, will serve as the Steelers’ No. 3 running back at M&T Bank Stadium with rookie Dri Archer out because of a sprained ankle.

Johnson played a little bit of running back in the Steelers’ final preseason game, and he carried the ball one time for 6 yards.

Johnson played tailback and defensive back in high school.

“It feels natural," the 6-foot-2, 238-pounder said of playing running back. "If they need me in an emergency situation, I could do it.”

The Steelers could sign rookie Josh Harris from the practice squad to also provide depth behind Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. My guess, however, is that the Steelers are comfortable with Johnson as their No. 3 running back and won’t add Harris to the 53-man roster.

In addition to Archer, wide receiver Lance Moore won’t play against the Ravens because of a groin injury. Here is my projection of the five healthy players who will be deactivated by the Steelers for the 8:30 p.m. ET game at M&T Bank Stadium:
  • WR Martavis Bryant: The rookie fourth-round pick is listed as probable after coming back from a shoulder injury, but Darrius Heyward-Bey gets the nod over Bryant because the latter plays special teams.
  • G Chris Hubbard: I have the Steelers dressing eight offensive linemen with rookie Wesley Johnson getting the last spot on the game day roster because of his versatility. The last time the Steelers played at Baltimore they barely had enough healthy offensive linemen to finish the game. In a game as physical as this one it will be wise for the Steelers to have an extra offensive lineman active.
  • CB D.W. Webb: He only played a few snaps on special teams against the Browns and will lose his spot to cornerback Brice McCain unless McCain has a setback with his groin.
  • NT Daniel McCullers: Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon is fine after missing some time in the season opener because of a stinger.
  • QB Landry Jones: Has yet to dress for an NFL game and that won’t change unless there is an injury at quarterback.

Steelers' Archer, Moore out vs. Ravens

September, 10, 2014
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers will be a little shorthanded on offense Thursday night in Baltimore.

Running back Dri Archer (ankle) and wide receiver Lance Moore (groin) were ruled out for the Steelers’ game against the Ravens.

Archer sprained his ankle in the Steelers’ 30-27 victory over the Browns last Sunday and Moore did not play in the season opener because of a nagging groin injury.

Justin Brown will again serve as the Steelers’ No. 3 wide receiver. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said fullback Will Johnson will also play running back in case of an injury to starter Le’Veon Bell or backup LeGarrette Blount.

Brown caught three passes for 38 yards against the Browns and played extensively in his first NFL game, which reflected the confidence Haley has in him.

“Justin did a lot of real good things for his first time out there in a home opener with a different level of intensity that you see from preseason games that he played in to real games,” Haley said of Brown’s NFL debut. “He handled it well. He fought through his mistakes and bounced back. He didn’t let it get him too down or too up when he made some plays. And he didn’t shy away from competition. I think it’s a great start to grow from."

All other Steelers players who have been dealing with injuries, including wide receiver Martavis Bryant (shoulder), cornerback Brice McCain (groin), safety Shamarko Thomas (Achilles, ankle) and center Cody Wallace (hamstring, finger), are listed as probable.

Steelers won't be running on empty

September, 5, 2014
PITTSBURGH -- The difference a year makes at running back is striking.

Consider the Pittsburgh Steelers went into their season opener last year with Isaac Redman, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling as their top three running backs.

[+] Enlarge Le'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Michael PerezLe'Veon Bell's involvement in the Steelers' passing game should make him the team's busiest running back.
None is in the NFL right now, though injuries are a factor there.

The Steelers' top three running backs going into the season opener Sunday are Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer.

The trio, in addition to being a major upgrade in talent, offers power, speed and versatility.

The biggest question -- aside from the judgment exhibited by the top two backs a couple of weeks ago -- is whether there will be enough work to keep everyone happy.

"There's never enough touches," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said with a grin, "but if we stay on the field there will be enough touches [to go around]."

A couple of factoids dug up by my colleagues at ESPN Stats & Information could indicate how the roles of the running backs will evolve this season.
  • Bell caught 45 passes in 13 games last season, and his 65 targets were the most times quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has ever thrown to a running back in a season. Bell, who missed the first three games last season because of a sprained foot, will get the most touches this season among the running backs because a significant amount of them will come in the passing game.
  • Blount averaged 2.16 yards after contact last season, third-highest in the NFL. The 6-foot, 250-pounder gives the Steelers something they haven't had since Jerome Bettis: a big, punishing back with good feet who can help the Steelers grind out the clock when they have a lead in the fourth quarter.
  • Archer is the X-factor of the trio because of his speed and versatility. The Steelers will lean heavily on Bell and Blount when running the ball and try to get Archer the ball in space.

One thing that is certain to happen no matter how the situation at running back plays out: The Steelers stop the decline in the ground game that has taken place the last three seasons.

Since piling up 120.3 rushing yards per game in 2010, the Steelers have averaged 118.9, 96.1 and 86.4 rushing yards per game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I'm excited about where we are with the guys in the backfield," Haley said. "Le'Veon's 100 percent going into it this year, he's got almost a full year of experience playing in the league, which is huge. LeGarrette Blount is a proven commodity, a big back at the position. I'm excited to see Dri Archer when he's getting his backfield snaps."

Browns vs. Steelers preview

September, 4, 2014
Johnny Manziel and Ryan Shazier USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on these rookies in Week 1: Cleveland's Johnny Manziel and Pittsburgh's Ryan Shazier.
The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their long-standing rivalry Sunday at Heinz Field.

And something has to give in the game in which Johnny Manziel is expected to make his NFL debut. The Browns have lost 10 consecutive games at Heinz Field, while the Steelers haven't won a season opener since 2010.

ESPN NFL Nation Browns reporter Pat McManamon and ESPN NFL Nation Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.

Brown: Pat, how many times have you written the surname Manziel since the Browns drafted Johnny Football in early May? Well, let's get the obligatory Manziel chatter out of the way. How do you see the Browns using Manziel on Sunday and how much do you expect him to play?

McManamon: As for the first part, Scott, let's say more than five and less than 10,000, but just barely less. I would be surprised if Manziel does not see the field for a play or a series in each half. The Browns and coach Mike Pettine have been coy about how he'll be used, but he does bring a different element than Brian Hoyer, and the Browns could put him on the field the same way the Steelers first used Kordell Stewart. Certain down-and-distance situations might be good for the read-option, or certain spots on the field might be good for a quarterback who can move. I don't think Manziel will play a lot, but I do think he'll play in the right spot, as judged by the coaching staff.

Scott, a slow start doomed the Steelers last season. How determined are they to avoid that slow start again, and how much bad luck is it for the Browns to draw the Steelers in the opener?

Brown: For the record, I am not going to start calling you Pat McFootball no matter how many times you privately lobby me to do so. Take a picture with the Biebs in it and we will talk. With that order of business out of the way, I will say the schedule-makers did not do the Browns any favors by having them open in Pittsburgh. I suspect the Steelers will publicly downplay the notion that this is a must-win game, but in reality it is. The Steelers cannot start slow again this season, and with road games against the Ravens and the Panthers looming, they have to beat the Browns. As hard as it is to win in the NFL, nothing is more served on a platter than an opponent that hasn't won in Pittsburgh in more than a decade and has an offense riddled with question marks. Did I mention Ben Roethlisberger, who has never forgiven the Browns for passing on him in the 2004 NFL draft, has lost just one time to Cleveland?

Getting back to the Browns' offense, who do the Steelers have to worry about beating them with wide receiver Josh Gordon out for the season?

McManamon: Nobody, really. The Browns will try to run the ball and use tight end Jordan Cameron creatively, but there is no real outside threat even close to the threat Gordon provided. And Cameron better get used to consistent double coverage. It's almost unfair to throw a quarterback into a game with these circumstances. Running back Ben Tate probably will be the offensive bell cow. He'll be featured prominently in the game plan. But the Steelers stop the run in their sleep. This game will be a serious challenge for the Browns' offense and offensive coaches.

Speaking of offense, how has and how will the marijuana possession charges against Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount affect the team, if at all, this weekend?

Brown: It is a footnote to this game. Not to minimize the stupidity that the Steelers' top two running backs showed -- and they are worthy of all of the unflattering nicknames that have surfaced on social media, among other places -- but the issue has presumably been dealt with from the Steelers' end. If Bell and Blount had been suspended for the season opener, we would have seen Roethlisberger throwing a ton of passes and a one-dimensional offense. But with both Bell and Blount slated to play against the Browns, the Steelers' offense will be at full strength.

I am real interested in seeing whether the Steelers try to set up the pass through the run or vice versa. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin predictably gushed about Cleveland's defense at his news conference earlier this week, and certainly that unit is the strength of the Browns. Will that defense be as good as advertised?

McManamon: Let's tap the brakes on this "good defense." Nobody knows yet. The defense has new names -- and they are good names to have -- but they might not be improved. Also, a defense that was supposed to be good a season ago made a habit of blowing late leads. The weak spot this season is the same as last -- cornerback opposite Joe Haden. First-round pick Justin Gilbert is going through significant growing pains, and Buster Skrine is coming off a thumb injury. The Browns wanted Isaiah Trufant to be the nickelback, but he's on injured reserve. Smart teams pick at weaknesses; it would be surprising if the Steelers don't pick on the second corner. The other concern, which has been an ongoing issue: Will the defense wear down because it's on the field too much due to the offense struggling?

Staying with defense, Steelers rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier is an Ohio State guy, and there's been a lot of positive press on him throughout preseason. Has he been that good?

Brown: He has, but the caveat, of course, is that Shazier has yet to play in an NFL game that counts. That changes Sunday, and most telling about the progress Shazier has made is the fact he will become the first Steelers defensive rookie to start a season opener since Kendrell Bell in 2001. There will be the inevitable growing pains as the first-round pick adjusts to the speed of the game at this level. Probably the biggest concern with Shazier is whether he will consistently be able to shed blocks since the 6-1, 237-pounder is not the biggest linebacker. The Browns' offensive line is one of their biggest strengths, so it will be a good opening test for Shazier. I think the kid is going to be a star, and I predict he will win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Most significant move: The Steelers cut a pair of players who appeared in games for them last season. In the process, their plans along the defensive line came more into focus. The team released defensive end Brian Arnfelt, who appeared in two games at the end of last season, and nose tackle Hebron Fangupo, who played in four games in 2013. Josh Mauro, an undrafted rookie, has the edge for the last defensive spot if the Steelers keep seven defensive linemen, and rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers, a sixth-round pick, is almost sure to stick on the 53-man roster. Defensive end Ethan Hemer may be the odd man out with defensive end Nick Williams and nose tackle Roy Philon likely grabbing spots on the practice squad. Arnfelt entered training camp with a good chance at making the team, but the second-year man fell out of favor with the coaches and Mauro passed him at defensive end. Williams still has a chance to unseat Mauro if he plays well in the Steelers’ final preseason game Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers.

Running back shuffle: The Steelers are down to five running backs after releasing three at that position Tuesday, including Tauren Poole, who got a long look from the coaches. A roster spot is there for the taking if either Josh Harris or Stephen Houston seizes the final opportunity against the Panthers. The Steelers may go with three running backs and fullback Will Johnson even given the uncertain status of starter Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. Coach Mike Tomlin has said the team is considering all options as far as punishment following their arrest on marijuana possession charges. (Bell has also been charged with driving under the influence.) That includes a suspension -- and the Steelers can maneuver around the collective bargaining agreement by simply deactivating Bell, Blount or both for the Sept. 7 season opener against the Browns. I don’t expect the Steelers to sit either for an entire game, and a suspension from the NFL wouldn’t come until next season. That means Harris or Houston will have to play his way on to the 53-man roster, or the two could be vying for a spot on the practice squad. The Steelers will also keep an eye on the waiver wire to see which running backs become available at the end of the week.

Steelers’ moves: Arnfelt, S Jordan Dangerfield, C Chris Elkins, Fangupo, WR C.J. Goodwin, RB Jordan Hall, LS Luke Ingram, RB Miguel Maysonet, OT Emmanuel McCray, WR Kashif Moore, Poole, CB Devin Smith, OLB Vic So’oto, CB Lew Toler, TE Eric Waters
PITTSBURGH -- During the last week of Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, a golf cart used for the transport of players and coaches around campus pulled up near the cafeteria. Running back LeGarrette Blount surveyed the reporters loitering around the area where players regularly give interviews at camp and said something to the driver.

The golf cart promptly did a U-turn, carrying Blount away from the reporters with whom he conducted few interviews during camp.

Should the Steelers execute the same maneuver with one of their most significant signings of the offseason?

Blount had a checkered past before he and starting running back Le'Veon Bell were pulled over because the Camaro that Bell was driving allegedly had the wrong kind of smoke coming from it.

Blount and Bell will be cited with marijuana possession after they were pulled over a couple of hours before the Steelers flew to Philadelphia for their third preseason game. In the aftermath of the first real incident that the Steelers will have to sort through since the start of the preseason, it is fair to question why they were able to sign Blount, a running back with a career 4.7 yards per carry average, to a modest two-year, $3.85 million contract in March.

And it's fair to ask why Blount, who emerged as New England's best running back by the end of last season, wasn't retained by the Patriots.

It's also fair to wonder why Blount is now with his fourth team since entering the NFL in 2010 as an undrafted free agent because he was kicked off Oregon's team as a senior for punching a Boise State player following a season-opening loss.

Blount is immensely talented, and the addition of the 6-foot, 250-pound thumper and the drafting of the ultra-fast Dri Archer makes running back one of the positions where the Steelers have upgraded themselves the most following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

Bell, who broke Franco Harris' record for yards from scrimmage by a rookie (1,259) in 2013, and Blount have been inseparable since they became teammates. That augured well for the time-sharing agreement the Steelers have planned for them in the backfield.

Now, it is worth wondering if the Steelers have to separate the two for the good of Bell, though the second-year man should in no way be absolved following an incident that appears to be as selfish as it was stupid.

The Steelers have little behind Bell and Blount with the diminutive Archer splitting time between running back and wide receiver -- and no other back emerging that the Steelers can count on to revive a ground attack that averaged just 86.4 rushing yards per game last season.

Now more questions have been raised about the Steelers' run game -- and whether the Bell-Blount pairing that looked so good before a dual moment of idiocy is worth it.