PITTSBURGH – The Steelers’ starting running back has been a jump ball ever since Rashard Mendenhall went down with a torn ACL in the 2011 finale.
Last year, three different runners started at least 4 games, and now Mendenhall’s gone.
It’s the spring of 2013 and a second-round draft pick and a darting free agent have joined the group of contenders fighting for the job. But the early starter isn’t the fit and thus-far flashy Isaac Redman.
No, the guy lining up first at OTAs this week is the guy who ended last season with too many questions about his weight and conditioning, and who still appears to be carrying excess baggage.
That guy is Jonathan Dwyer.
“It’s my job right now and it’s up to me whether I want to keep it or not,” said Dwyer. “That’s what I’m going to do. That’s the decision I made at the end of last year, to make sure that I’m ready and make sure I’m in the best shape of my life.”
Dwyer denies that he ended last season in what appeared to be horrible shape. And to his credit he did finish as the team’s leading rusher with 623 yards. But a simple inversion of those first two digits could easily – by this reporter’s eye test – have been his weight.
Dwyer said he did gain weight as the season progressed, but “not a lot.”
However, his production did suffer. Dwyer made three of his team-high six starts down the stretch, but gained only 113 yards in those final three games to finish as the Steelers’ least-productive leading rusher in 21 years. It motivated him to begin working out right away.
“This is the lightest I’ve ever been in the off-season,” Dwyer said. “I took a disciplinary action on myself. I know what I can do as a player when I’m in the best shape I can be. I know if I am I can get up into that next level as potentially one of the best in the league. So that’s pretty much where I’m trying to get to.”
Dwyer’s weight is back down to 245, and he said he’s on pace “to get down to 230, or as low as I possibly can” by the opener.
That would be his lightest weight since 2009 at Georgia Tech, but he said he’s not motivated by coaches or the drafting of Le’Veon Bell in the second round.
“I motivated myself,” Dwyer said. “I made that decision back when the season was over. I started training a little earlier than I usually do. I made sure I was on my diet and getting a chef and really getting into nutrition and learning how I can help myself.”
There was also the issue of in-game conditioning last season. Before the second Baltimore game, offensive coordinator Todd Haley put Dwyer back in the starting lineup, but practically begged him, publically, to not “tap out,” to “prove he wants to be in and stay out there.” But Dwyer continued to “tap out” while struggling to the finish line.
“I think this was because,” Dwyer started, “Yeah, coach made us rotate a lot because we had three guys and we had the rotation. Sometimes we would just come out after a play and the next person was supposed to come in. That was the situation. Then, Red[man] was the third-down guy and he came in on third downs, period, no matter what it was. That’s the reason I came out. Yeah, I know I could’ve been in better shape, and I can be – and I will – but that situation was mainly because of personnel and decision-making.”
Whomever was to blame, the Steelers had their least productive running game in nine years. But a reconstituted offensive line will emphasize the same kind of zone-blocking schemes which helped Dwyer rush for 1,395 yards in each of his final two college seasons.
“I’m very excited by that,” Dwyer said. “The offensive line is very excited about it, too. We have some athletic guys who can run and make blocks on the perimeter and get on the second level. So we’re very excited about that situation.”
Dwyer’s goal is to rush for 1,000 yards this season, and, of course, “get us to the Super Bowl.”
“I think everybody’s excited,” he said. “We know we had a setback last year. It’s something that not everybody’s used to. We’re basically just trying to go out there and do better and not make the same mistakes.”
(For more insight from Jonathan Dwyer, read the transcript of his interview here.)