Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer is running like each carry could be his last.
It wasn't long ago, that was a legitimate possibility. Mired in a clogged depth chart that included a second-round pick that Steelers' brass met with so often before the 2013 NFL Draft, it seemed like they were an item, and shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow mid-level tender recipient Isaac Redman, Dwyer had to brawl his way out of the glass-ceiling dog house in which he resided.
He never did get out.
Redman got the nod, Dwyer got the ax and Le'Veon Bell got the injury.
In a move that's become standard operating procedure for the Steelers this season, Dwyer was re-signed after being released. Redman's uninspiring eight carries for nine yards against Tennessee in Week 1, as well as the season-ending knee injury suffered by LaRod Stephens-Howling in that game brought Dwyer back.
He experienced the cold reality of the immediate NFL - perform now or watch at home. After an electrifying 25-yard run in a Week 2 loss against Chicago - one that had him so excited he forgot a new rule forbidding running backs from ramming defensive players with the crown of his helmet in the open field. He destroyed Bears safety Chris Conte, and drew a $21,000 fine from the league.
Who would have guessed last year Dwyer would be the second running back ever fined for an act of over-aggression?
Last year, Dwyer led the Steelers with 623 yards - the lowest total by a Steelers leading rusher in over 20 years. He ran tentatively, more like a guy carefully weighing his options. He no longer has that luxury, and he seems to understand that.
He took a handoff off the left side against New England, and exploded up the numbers. The run went for 30 yards, and was only on par with his 23-yard run-after-catch effort in the same game. Both times, Dwyer hopped up off the ground, emotive and demonstrative of the fire powering him in his few opportunities.
He was in the Steelers' offense for 11 plays against the Patriots. He had 53 yards on two touches.
Clearly, Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley noticed.
His touches tripled against Buffalo, jumping all the way to six, including a 17-yard run and some indication he may be in line to be the team's third-down back in the near future.
That would lead to criticism of why he was released in the first place, but equally reasonable of an argument is whether the chip that now resides on Dwyer's shoulder would be there had he not been cut in the first place. Bell is clearly the featured back of this team, and, barring injury, will continue to fill that role. But it's impossible to ignore the fact Bell has nearly four times the amount of touches Dwyer does (122-32), yet, Bell only holds a 4-3 advantage in terms of plays covering 20 or more yards.
It's rare a team benches, let alone releases, the top rusher from the previous season, but in a league that's getting more diverse with their running personnel, splitting carries is becoming the norm, not the exception. While Bell is having a decent rookie season and isn't playing like he should be replaced, harnessing Dwyer's "make the most of it" mentality may be in the Steelers' best interest over the second half of the season.
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