Steelers Draft Series: Offensive backfield

A new chapter in Jim Wexell's draft series on the Pittsburgh Steelers' options will run every other day throughout the three weeks leading up to the draft. Here's his offensive backfield:

We used to happily call them "killer drives" back in the days of Jerome Bettis. Now, a "killer drive" is what the Steelers put together at the end of their playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Remember this killer drive?

* Najeh Davenport for 5 yards.

* Davenport for a loss of a yard.

* Ben Roethlisberger around left end for a yard.

* Punt.

The Steelers had the lead with 3:43 left but their running game wasn't there and they lost. The injury to Willie Parker didn't help, but he was healthy and didn't help the only other time the Steelers needed their running game to salt away a one-score lead last season.

Against the Cleveland Browns, in the game that decided the division, the Steelers held a 31-28 lead and the ball with 2:42 left. Parker ran for a yard, then two yards, and a quarterback draw was stuffed at the line. The Steelers punted, but a penalty on the return saved the game and the division when Phil Dawson missed a long field goal in the final seconds.

The Steelers escaped that time, but it's obvious their running game is not "winning by attrition" any longer. Mike Tomlin admitted as much after the season.

"We've got to run the football more effectively and more often and later in football games so we can wear people down and win games on our terms the way we like to," he said at his end-of-season press conference.

Not that Tomlin wants to replace Parker, but he did say before the season that winning teams need two quality running backs. That's why the Steelers are taking a hard look at first-round draft prospect Jonathan Stewart of Oregon.

Stewart (5-10 ¼, 235) can pound inside or take it outside, and while he's working his way up the depth chart can return kicks. He led the nation in kick return average (33.7) as a true freshman and the Steelers have a gaping hole at the spot.

Stewart, who just turned 21, can also catch and block; in fact, Kevin Colbert called him a better all-around back than Darren McFadden. Colbert only said that early in the draft process when he thought Stewart was a lead-pipe lock to go earlier in the draft. But scouts aren't seeing it that way anymore, particularly since Stewart underwent surgery on his foot last month. He was hobbled last season by "turf toe" but says he'll be ready for training camp.

"I think Stewart will be there if they want him," said Scout.com's Tom Marino. "Stewart's a guy, but keep your eye on Tim Hightower. He's gotten very little press for a 223-pounder who led the nation in rushing."

Considered a fourth-rounder in Marino's rankings, the big back from Richmond rushed for 1,991 yards last season and has the inside power the Steelers lack.

"I think he's very underrated," said Marino, the former scout. "He's a north-south guy, sees the backside crack. I like yards after contact and Hightower makes yards after contact. Stewart could be a guy, and he ran fast at the combine (4.47), but he didn't play that fast."

Marino also likes 224-pound Toledo running back Jalen Parmele.

"He's another big back," Marino said. "He ran 4.52, similar to Hightower. He may not be as nifty as Hightower, but he has a little better feet and vision. He's field fast. I watched him one or two games. He's their kind of back."

The Steelers have also shown interest in LSU tailback/fullback Jacob Hester (5-10 ½, 226, 4.62) and Arizona State tailback Ryan Torain (6-0 ½, 222, 4.7), who suffered a LisFranc foot injury midway through the season. He was considered a third-rounder at the time, but his 4.7 combine time and the injury likely dropped him into the fifth round.

Hester's allure is that he would also provide depth at fullback if Dan Kreider isn't brought back. Michigan State's Jehuu Caulcrick is a 255-pound inside runner who visited with the Steelers and is another consideration.

At quarterback, the Steelers are merely looking for a fourth player at the position to compete with newcomer Jared Zabransky. They hosted Oregon QB Dennis Dixon and also attended the pro day of New Hampshire's Ricky Santos and Marshall's Bernard Morris.

Steelers Value Board

1st Round – Jonathan Stewart, Oregon.

4th Round – Tim Hightower, Richmond; Jacob Hester, LSU.

5th Round – Jason Parmele, Toledo.

6th Round – Ryan Torain, Arizona State.

Free Agent – Jehuu Caulcrick, Michigan State.


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