The hottest contested position on the Steelers' preseason roster in 2012 has been the running backs. Heading into their Preseason Week 3 game at Buffalo, it's make-or-break for several players, and the running back battle bleeds into the tight end spot as well.
Don't expect much, if any work, from Steelers RB Isaac Redman Saturday, who is still nursing a hip injury that put him in street clothes in Pittsburgh's 26-24 win over Indianapolis Aug. 19. RB Jonathan Dwyer appears to have locked up the 3RB position on the depth chart, and he probably won't get much work, either.
It's another opportunity for RB Baron Batch and RB Chris Rainey to show their ability to play with the 1s . We may even get a closer look at Week 2 stud RB Jason Ford.
One thing the Steelers cannot afford to do is get stuck in their own box right now. Their offense includes a fullback, but the intrigue created by their running backs - fringe candidate Batch in particular - shouldn't be ignored.
FB Will Johnson has impressive physical attributes, and has, on a few plays, blocked well, but top to bottom, hasn't displayed a full body of work in the time he's had in preseason games. Here's to hoping the Steelers don't award him a roster spot because he's the last pure fullback left from the beginning of training camp.
Johnson wasn't likely to make the team until likely starter David Johnson went down with a torn ACL in the team's first preseason game. David Johnson's versatility - he could have been the starting fullback as well as the third tight end if needed - is missed now, because the Steelers don't have anyone else who can play both positions.
The Steelers could have kept six running backs (counting David Johnson as one of them) and two tight ends, and perhaps that was their plan.
Heading into their third preseason game, the one in which the starters get the most playing time, it will be interesting to see who else will get a look at fullback. More to the point, if any current tight ends are moved into that position with the 1s, and how well they might perform in that role.
In other words, the battle could come down to Batch vs. Will Johnson, and they aren't even directly competing against each other. While none of the tight ends have fullback experience in the NFL, Leonard Pope and Justin Peelle have played H-back, and Weslye Saunders has been working in that capacity in practice.
Saunders is scheduled to serve a four-game suspension to start this season, so it appears either Pope or Peelle - both Steelers' free agent signings this offseason and preseason, respectively - are competing for the 2TE and 3TE positions. Upon Saunders' return, one of them will be released, but until then, it's possible the Steelers use one of them as a motioning fullback as a means of keeping them on the field.
Electing to not keep Will Johnson on the 53-man roster, and instead choosing Batch, while running the offense with the involvement of an H-back - something Haley did last year in Kansas City (Le'Ron McClain was in on less than half the Chiefs' snaps in 2011) - they could choose to provide a diverse mix of running options.
Batch got the nod when the Steelers went into their hurry-up offense against Indianapolis. His abilities in pass protection as well as a receiving option shouldn't be ignored. It's something QB Ben Roethlisberger obviously wants to run often, and if the Steelers get locked into favorable personnel match-ups, it could be a big advantage.