LATROBE – One of Mike Tomlin’s complaints after the Steelers lost to the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night was the Steelers’ short-yardage offense.
Then again, Tomlin might want to blame himself for using the wrong runners.
The Packers stopped Najeh Davenport and Brian St. Pierre at the line on a pair of third-and-1 plays in the first half. The Steelers didn’t have any more third-and-short situations in the game, but they had three second-and-shorts and Gary Russell converted every one of them.
In the Hall of Fame Game, the Steelers had two third-and-shorts: Russell gained 10 on third-and-4, and quarterback Bryan Randall gained two on third-and-one a play before taking a knee to end the game.
In goal-line scrimmages at camp, running from the one-and-a-half yard line, the Steelers’ running backs were 3-for-9 scoring touchdowns. Willie Parker, Davenport and Russell scored the touchdowns; Russell is the only one of the three who was a perfect 1-for-1.
The common theme is Russell. In college he scored 19 touchdowns his only season as the feature back at Minnesota. Eighteen of those touchdowns were scored rushing the ball and most of those were in short-yardage situations.
As a running back at Walnut Ridge High outside of Columbus, Ohio, Russell scored 29 touchdowns in each of his final two seasons.
The undrafted rookie just might have what it takes to become the Steelers’ short-yardage back. Watch him disappear into the pile of bodies in the middle of the line, and then watch his power as he pops out the other side.
The 5-foot-10 3/8, 220-pounder doesn’t stop moving his feet after he’s been hit.
“It’s from Little League, where they tell you to keep your feet chopping,” Russell said.
Has anyone else noticed Russell’s second effort with the ball?
“Definitely, definitely, definitely,” said backfield mate Verron Haynes. “He has a resilient running style. He runs really hard, low to the ground. He’s definitely going to be a back of the future.”
Russell would appear to be in a fight for a roster spot with the Steelers, but if they were to break down how and why Russell is leading the team in rushing they’d certainly find him deserving of a job.
Russell, of course, went undrafted even though he’d rushed for 1,130 yards (6.1 avg.) in 2005. He flunked out of school the following season and tried to return via the junior-college route, but the Minnesota school president wouldn’t allow him to carry over some necessary credits and Russell missed the year.
During his time off, Russell ballooned to 250 pounds before falling back to 229 in time for the combine. But it wasn’t enough. Russell ran awful 40s (4.84, 4.87) and benched 225 pounds only nine times. Those stats and the fact he flunked out of school resulted in Russell falling completely out of the draft. He signed with the Steelers as a free agent, and in the spring explained that he’s never been a weight-room guy and that he only has competitive speed.
“I was down in Miami training for the combine and I was running with 4.3 guys, right along with them,” he said. “I just can’t get that mental block out of me when I’m running by myself.”
If the replay of his 61-yard run against Michigan – which set up the game-winning field goal with one second left – ever appears on TV, take note of Russell’s competitive speed.
His former offensive coordinator at Minnesota, Mitch Browning, said the key for Russell is that he keep his weight at 215. That’s where Russell was in the spring, but he’s since moved back up to 220, where he feels most comfortable.
“He was a great football player for us,” said Browning. “When we lost him, it really hurt.”
But Minnesota’s loss has been the Steelers’ gain. Russell leads the team in rushing with 97 yards on 17 carries. He hasn’t scored a touchdown, but he hasn’t been given a chance yet, either.
“I could be the short yardage guy,” Russell said, “if they ask me to.”