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Steelers Jonathan Dwyer using every one of his nine lives

Jonathan Dwyer has always been long on potential but short on discipline and production. Now that rookie sensation Le'Veon Bell is down with a mid-foot injury, Dwyer may get another chance to show the Steelers he is capable of carrying the load at running back.

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Rob Carr

If a rookie sensation has a great training camp, can anyone actually hear it? I ask this because, while the reports of rookie running back Le'Veon Bell and his excellent practices in Latrobe earlier in the summer were probably true, there's no hard evidence of his talent in the form of game highlights, thanks to a bruised knee that kept him under wraps in the Steelers first preseason game and a mid-foot injury that limited his carries to four in the second game. Therefore, I'll just chalk up Bell's excellence as myth and fable, that is, until he actually does something that can be broken down and analyzed in BTSC's fine film room.

I do know one thing that isn't a myth or fable: Jonathan Dwyer is a pretty talented cat, and he seems to have nine lives.

There's never been a question about Dwyer's ability. In fact, the fourth year running back out of Georgia Tech was considered one of the steals of the 2010 NFL Draft when he was selected in the sixth round by the Steelers. The consensus was that if Dwyer could work harder, keep his weight down and realize his potential, well, as the draftniks like to say, he'd be a great value pick for Pittsburgh.

But while Dwyer's talent and college production indicated he was probably under-drafted, there's usually a reason why players are selected where they are, as scouts don't normally miss.

Sure enough, during his first two seasons with the Steelers, Dwyer justified his late round status by reporting to camp overweight, failing the team's 2011 conditioning test and struggling with injuries.

Dwyer carried the football just 25 times over the course of his first two seasons. In the meantime, more draft steals and camp darlings came along to threaten Dwyer's place on the roster.

In 2011, the Steelers selected running back Baron Batch in the seventh round out of Texas Tech, and much like Bell, the excitement for Batch grew throughout the offseason and into training camp. Unfortunately for Batch, he tore his ACL near the end of camp and was forced to miss the entire year. Even though he made the team a year ago, Batch didn't show the flashes of quickness and speed that he did shortly before his injury, and now he sits on the bubble to make the final 53 man roster.

A year ago, Steelers fans were once again intrigued by a rookie running back when the team selected Chris Rainey out of Florida in the fifth round. Just like Dwyer and Batch, before him, Rainey was considered a steal. Fans were excited about Rainey's speed and what that could bring to special teams and the offense. But again, there's normally a reason players are drafted where they are, and it became quite apparent that Rainey's lack of size (180 lbs) was very limiting as the rookie barely made a splash on offense or in special teams. Questions of character also hurt Rainey's draft status and that manifested itself in a domestic dispute in his home state of Florida shortly after the end of the 2012 season, and the rookie was quickly released by Pittsburgh.

Dwyer did manage to get his act together last season, when he was Pittsburgh's most productive back in the absence of injured starter Rashard Mendenhall and rushed for 623 yards, including back-to-back 100 yard performances--the first Steelers back to do that in four seasons.

In March, Mendenhall defected to the Cardinals as a free agent, but if Dwyer felt any sort of comfort in perhaps being the team's new man in the backfield, they were quickly dashed a month later when Bell was selected in the second round out of Michigan St in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Second round picks are expected to start eventually, and that's especially true when they play a position as unsettled as the Steelers running backs have been. Mendenhall's free agent defection as well as the mostly underwhelming performance by the running backs as a group a year ago (despite his coming out party, Dwyer also struggled quite a bit as Pittsburgh averaged just under 100 yards a game on the ground in 2012) created a huge vacuum that Bell quickly filled with his impressive showing in training camp.

But like the old football saying goes: "You can't make the club in the tub." It remains unclear how much time Bell will miss with his foot injury, but his early exit Monday night, as well as the injury absences of Isaac Redman and LaRod Stephens-Howling, not only created grave concern about the Steelers running back situation, they created another vacuum, and Dwyer filled it admirably, gaining 68 yards on 14 carries and looked more than capable of being the lead guy if he has to.

It's hard to say what the coaches think of Dwyer (his first half fumble certainly didn't help his cause), but, again, there's no denying the talent-level.

Dwyer is bigger than Stephens-Howling and more talented than Redman. And for the time-being, he's healthier than Bell.

Before Monday's performance against the Redskins, Dwyer wasn't even on Neal Coolong's projected 53 man roster. In just over two weeks, he might open the season as the Steelers starting running back.

None of the Steelers recent running back acquisitions, including Bell, have stepped up to seize control of the starting job. Dwyer just might be the guy that outlasts them all.

Now that's a cat who knows how to use all nine lives.

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