Jerome Bettis was having the best season of his 10-year career until a groin injury sidelined him for the team's final five regular season games.
The 30-year-old Bettis was leading the league in rushing with 1,072 yards before his injury and had also surpassed the 10,000-yard mark for his career when the injury struck. Bettis didn't play again until the team's 24-17 loss in the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. An obviously rusty Bettis gained just eight yards on nine carries in that game.
But Bettis says the groin injury, which he admitted re-injuring against the Patriots, won't be a problem this season. "I'm fine," he said at the team's mini-camp in June. "This isn't something that's going to linger. I've rested it and rehabbed it. I'll be ready."
Backing Bettis up again this season will be Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Amos Zereoue. Zereoue served as the team's third-down back last season after spending his first two years on the bench and blossomed in that role. The former West Virginia star picked up 441 yards rushing on just 85 carries, a healthy 5.2 yards per carry average. He also caught 13 passes for 154 yards.
The Steelers were very pleased with Zereoue's production and rewarded him with a 4-year, $8.79-million contract that included a $2.15-million signing bonus.
There is a question about Zereoue's health, however. Doctors removed a cyst from his liver during the spring. Zereoue lost a considerable amount of weight because of the disorder, but has resumed lifting and regained most of the weight he lost.
"Amos will be OK by training camp," said head coach Bill Cowher. "He should be able to do everything by then."
Fuamatu-Ma'afala stepped in when Bettis was out with mixed results. He gained 453 yards and also caught 16 passes for 127 yards, but his 3.8 yards per carry average was easily the worst of any of the Steelers running backs.
The Steelers released fullback Jon Witman in the offseason, meaning former rookie free agent Dan Kreider takes over as the team's starter. Kreider is a better blocker than Witman, but still has a way to go as a receiver.
Battling for what will likely be the final roster spot for a running back will be second-year man R.J. Bowers and rookies Verron Hayes, Antwon McCray and Albert Tuipulotu.
Given that the Steelers need a backup fullback to Kreider, the 5-foot-11, 209-pound McCray, a Chartiers Valley High School graduate and Toledo star, is on the outside looking in. Bowers, the NCAA's all-time leading rusher at Grove City, showed some ability as a runner last season, gaining 84 yards on 18 carries with a touchdown in late season action.
But whether or not he can make the adjustment to fullback remains to be seen.
Haynes was the team's fifth-round pick in this year's draft and is an intriguing prospect. A fullback by trade – linebacker Kendrell Bell, his teammate at Georgia, Haynes the best blocker he's ever faced - Haynes filled in at running back last season at Georgia and performed well. At 5-foot-10, 224 pounds, he lacks ideal size, but Haynes could be a sleeper.
The 5-foot-11, 240-pound Tuipulotu was a fullback at Portland State and will have to be very impressive to make the roster.