I, like many Georgia Tech fans, have been watching and waiting to see when rookie Jonathan Dwyer would get his first chance at regular season action with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tech fans saw the running back thrive under Paul Johnson, winning the 2008 ACC Player of the Year and being named to the first team All-ACC the last two years.
Dwyer, who left for the NFL after his junior season, dropped to the sixth round where he was picked by the Steelers. He had a rough training camp, and was a borderline cut heading into the preseason games. The last two games offered him his first chance at real NFL playing time, and he took advantage, rushing for 183 yards on 39 carries. He made the 53-man roster, but has yet to be listed as active for a game and get regular season experience.
Earlier in November, backup running backs Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore were both out with concussions against the Patriots. Instead of activating Dwyer to be the backup to starter Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers announced that safety Troy Polamalu would be the emergency ball carrier.
I reached out to Michael Bean of Behind The Steel Curtain to get more information and hear his thoughts on Dwyer and his roster spot.
SB Nation Atlanta - What were your thoughts on the rookie after seeing him play in the preseason?
Michael Bean - Dwyer had a somewhat sluggish start to his first summer with the Steelers. It's hard to make much of an impression during mini-camps obviously, but once the pads went on in Latrobe, PA at training camp, it became clear that Dwyer was going to be somewhat of a project. He not only wasn't wowing anybody with his physical gifts, he also had some mental miscues in areas like pass-blocking assignments. Then once the preseason schedule began, you know how it goes: the first, second and third string guys all get looks in the first 2 1/2 quarters. Then, once the 4th quarter begins, teams are running the most vanilla offenses imaginable just trying to finish the game without losing anyone to injury. Dwyer did turn in a good performance in the Steelers' third preseason game. He finished with 89 yards and one rushing touchdown on 13 carries. It was on that night that he probably cemented his place on the 53-man roster.
SBNA - Mendenhall is having a great season, but the Steelers are still working in the two backups Moore and Redman and getting them touches. Why is Dwyer not getting any of their chances?
MB - Dwyer is not getting touches for two simple reasons: firstly, Mewelde Moore is a veteran third-down back that's been there and done that in this league. He's reliable, a proven commodity, and the Steelers - a team with Super Bowl aspirations - is going to turn to a veteran for minor contributions like the ones Moore provides rather than risk much with a young prospect like Dwyer. It's 'win now' each and every year in Pittsburgh, and guys like Dwyer have to gradually earn their opportunity to contribute. Which leads me to my second point. Isaac Redman has paid his dues on the practice squad last year before getting a shot to contribute in '10. Redman was a training camp sensation the last two years, and very much deserving of the occasional carry in Pittsburgh's offense. Redman showed particularly good instincts and consistency picking up short yardage and goal line conversions in camp and the preseason, areas that the Steelers struggled in the past two years. All that said, nobody's down on Dwyer. Perhaps he made more sense financially than Moore, who's earning close to $2 million this year. But in an uncapped year, the Steelers decided it was worth shelling out the extra dough for a proven, steady player like Moore.
SBNA - The Steelers have been in fairly close games for most the season. If there is a blowout coming in the next couple of weeks, would you expect him to get a chance?
MB - Really, the opportunity for Dwyer comes next year. In all likelihood, Moore will not be re-signed unless he's willing to take a huge pay-cut. And even if he does, Dwyer might still have the leg up on beating him out for a prominent role behind Rashard Mendenhall. You never know though in this league, guys are just an injury or two away from having the opportunity of a lifetime to shine. Perhaps Dwyer's turn will come sooner than anyone might have expected.
SBNA - Is the problem that he is stuck behind three good running backs? Or is he badly lacking in a skill area that is keeping him off of the field?
MB - Well, I've touched on the question in previous answers, but what non-Steelers fans wouldn't know is just how dynamic and amazing Isaac Redman has looked in the limited opportunities he's had. He's been All World in the preseason the past two summers, and through the first half of this year's schedule, he's been very efficient picking up short-yardage conversions for the Steelers' offense. Redman is also dirt cheap, having been an un-drafted free agent rookie. Simply put: Redman showed so damn much this past two offseasons that it was a lock for him to earn a hat in '10. And like I said, in an uncapped year, it makes perfect sense to go with a versatile, proven veteran like Moore rather than taking gambles on guys like Dwyer for salary cap purposes...not when you're a Super Bowl contender, at least.
Again though, that's not a knock on Dwyer. He can definitely stand to benefit from being in the Steelers strength and conditioning program for a year or two, but there's nothing that suggests he can't make it in this league. The list of running backs who have been difference makers after being drafted in late rounds (if at all) is too long to read. Ryan Grant and Arian Foster are the two names that first come to mind as guys that were overlooked initially yet ultimately had the most of an opportunity when it presented itself. Dwyer will get that chance, be it in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.
SBNA - Thanks to Michael for his time and help. Head over to Behind the Steel Curtain for more on the Steelers.