A year ago, it was about the low-and-undrafted running backs pushing the alleged prize runner a run for his money.
Former first round pick Rashard Mendenhall was rehabilitating after surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered at the end of the 2011 season. Waiting anxiously behind him, looking for a chance, was several young running backs battling for the same kind of contract extension Mendenhall was before his injury.
Jonathan Dwyer, a Training Camp Hero in 2012, locked horns with incumbent (and fan favorite) Isaac Redman for the yeoman's share of carries during Mendenhall's absence. Add in Baron Batch, who was coming off a torn ACL from training camp in 2011, the Steelers running backs were thought to be among the deepest position group on the team.
It turns out that wasn't exactly the case.
Mendenhall never looked like the Mendenhall who twice rushed for over 1,000 yards with the Steelers, and was well on his way to a third trip over the century mark in 2011. Dwyer and Redman were both hampered by injuries, and Dwyer was benched due to a fumble early in the season. Batch never appeared to be a viable option outside of specialty duty - but showed he could contend for that kind of a role.
In the end, Dwyer's 623 rushing yards led the team - the lowest total to top the Steelers' stat list in over 20 years - and none of the combatants succeeded in warding the others off for an extended period of time.
One good game was followed by a poor one, or an injury, or both. Mendenhall had 100 combined yards and a touchdown in his first game back, a win over Philadelphia in Week 5. He was injured early in the Steelers' eventual loss to Tennessee in Week 6.
Dwyer cracked out 229 combined rushing yards in wins over Cincinnati and Washington, but gave way to Redman after suffering an injury at the end of the Redskins game. Redman ran all over the Giants in a Week 9 win, putting up a season-high 147 yards, only to drop down to injury again, watching Dwyer do very little against a stout Chiefs run defense in Week 10.
Inconsistency needed to be dealt with this offseason, so the Steelers drafted a running back noted for his consistency - and durability - in the second round of the 2013 Draft.
Le'Veon Bell is a strong back with quick feet, and a penchant for avoiding injury, and producing consistent stats in his three years at Michigan State.
Don't think that's a coincidence.
Mendenhall reunited himself with former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in Arizona, where he is now the head coach. Redman and Dwyer were both given tender offers in restricted free agency - Dwyer signed his immediately, Redman waited until just before the deadline to do so.
After a flirtation period with free agent Ahmad Bradshaw (who signed with the Colts), the Steelers signed LaRod Stephens-Howling, who is expected to push Batch for a spot within specialty packages as well as the team's no-huddle offense. He can also contribute on special teams as a return man.
Bell hasn't taken contact yet at the pro level, but is still expected to shoulder the bulk of the carries in Pittsburgh this season. This very well could mean either Dwyer or Redman will be released. Batch could find himself in that position as well due to the presence of Stephens-Howling, but all three are outstanding pass blockers, which serves a vital role within the offense.
Second-year fullback Will Johnson doesn't appear to have a rival at this point, although the team did sign back David Johnson, one year after tearing his ACL in the preseason. Johnson was thought to be the front-runner for the team's fullback job before his injury. Johnson's athleticism and soft hands stood out last year, and Johnson would have a tough time supplanting him at a position he didn't play before last training camp.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Wide Receivers
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Cornerbacks
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Linebackers
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Tight Ends
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Running backs
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Quarterbacks
- Boredom gave birth to The Renegade, but not until another birth made it happen
- Welcome to The Renegade