Getting Past That 'Sickening Feeling'

What a difference a year has made for Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson. But what about his runners? Jim Wexell has the breakdown.

LATROBE – If you watched Kirby Wilson at this time last year, you watched a man in pain.

He walked as if he were stepping on eggshells, only his face made it seem as if he were walking on razor blades.

And when the sun beat down for too long on that oversized sun hat of his, Wilson needed to sit in the shade and catch a breath.

The Steelers' running backs coach, of course, had been in a fire some months prior to camp, and he looked as if he might still be smoldering.

But the worst was yet to come. His backs not only went on to produce the team's lowest rushing total since 2003, they produced the franchise's second-worst yards-per-game average since 1966.

The running game bottomed out in Cleveland on Nov. 25, when all four halfbacks lost fumbles in a loss to the Browns.

"That was the low point of a long season for me," said Wilson.

But he's back, and with a sparkle in his eyes and a bounce in his step. In fact, Wilson ran 100-yard gassers with the players at Friday's conditioning test.

"What a difference a year makes," he said with an easy smile. "I'm recovered completely, 100 percent. I'm feeling fantastic and looking forward to being out there and putting my hand in the pile and doing my part in helping us get back to the playoffs."

Not that Wilson's hand was ever out of the pile. He finished the season, as difficult as it was, "and now I'm back to being the person that I've always been, in terms of my health, and I'm able to do the things I'm capable of doing, so I'm enjoying it much more now."

So now there's no excuse now, right? The Steelers have added a highly regarded runner in second-round pick Le'Veon Bell and a beep-beep speedster in free-agent LaRod Stephens-Howling. And they still have two veterans in Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, who are clearly in better shape than a year ago, and Wilson has a sleeper in Baron Batch who's looking significantly more quicker in his second year back from a torn ACL.

The Steelers also have an exciting young offensive line that's poised to live up to its draft-day pedigree this season. All they need now is a plan.

A plan is what seemed to be missing last year when Mike Tomlin changed the starting back five times in a desperate search for "the hot hand."

"Well," Wilson said as he mulled over the criticism, "you always have a plan, and the plan has always been you prepare all of your players the same. That position kind of takes care of itself, meaning that the best players generally will do things different from another player, meaning that the best players will do things better than the guy that's behind him. And that's the guy you put your hat on and say, ‘OK, here's our guy. He's ready to go.'

"It's no different year to year. You always go with your best guy, and this year will be the same. Whoever emerges is the guy who's the most consistent, the guy who's the most dependable, unselfish, accountable. That's the guy who's going to be in there."

While it appeared the Steelers had no idea who that "best guy" was last year, Wilson said it was Rashard Mendenhall, who couldn't quite recover from the previous season's ACL tear. They also tried Redman and Dwyer for spurts, but nothing really took.

"For whatever reason, last year it didn't work," Wilson said. "It didn't work from a health standpoint and from the way we played as a unit. It didn't work. That's why we're back at it this year. That's why we have a whole new open race for all our halfbacks to compete, and hopefully again the cream will rise to the top and the best player will distance himself and separate himself from the next guy."

Wilson opened camp Saturday with Redman as his No. 1 halfback "just because he's the oldest player in our room. After that it's wide open for everything. They all know that."

The obvious assumption is that Bell, the rookie Tomlin compared a bit to Eddie George on draft day, is the guy they want to win the job. But Wilson said there'll be no scholarships awarded.

"No, he'll earn it. He'll earn it," Wilson said. "Whoever is eventually the starter will have earned it through consistent production and his overall production."

Backs have always had to earn their stripes from Wilson, whose fiery temper had become a part of the camp fabric prior to last year. But that temper is back, and so is the light in his eyes.

Is it an indication – however symbolically – that the Steelers' running game will return to health as well?

"I certainly hope so," Wilson said with a hearty laugh. "We need to perform better. There's no question we need to perform better. I think we're up to it physically. I think we're up to it mentally. We have to put it all together now and really, really work hard and be on the same page with the entire offense and make this thing happen this year because none of us want that feeling we went through last year. It's a sickening feeling. We've got to correct it and fix it."

NOTES – The Steelers fought through a 30-minute rain delay Saturday to finish their first camp practice. They'll practice in shorts again today before donning pads for the first time Monday. ... NT Alameda Ta'amu said he injured his hamstring two weeks ago while running sprints. Ta'amu said he's lost 27 pounds since last season and weighs 350.

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