PITTSBURGH – Jonathan Dwyer walked into the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room a few hours before taking on the Eagles earlier this month, saw his name in black on the white message board and shrugged his shoulders.
The third-year running back expected there to be fallout over his costly fourth-quarter fumble a few days earlier in a loss to Oakland. While Dwyer hoped he'd get a chance to immediately atone for the first mistake of his career, the writing on the wall — literally — meant he was inactive.
Harsh? Maybe a little. Undeserved? Not really, at least not to Dwyer.
"I was inactive because of me," Dwyer said.
And the somewhat impersonal manner in which it was handed didn't bother him either.
"That's how we do business here," he said. "It's very honest and straightforward and it makes me want to work harder to eliminate my problems and eliminate mistakes from my game."
So Dwyer didn't spend two weeks beating himself up while watching from the sideline in sweats as Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman went to work. He's well-versed in the Steeler mantra of "next man up" and when injuries to both Mendenhall and Redman thrust Dwyer back onto the field last weekend against Cincinnati, he buckled his chinstrap, kept his head down and plowed ahead.
The result was a career-high 122 bruising yards in a 24-17 victory. On most teams, posting the highest rushing total in over a year would assure you of more than a handful of carries the next week.
Not in Pittsburgh, which has found a way of coaxing steady performances from whomever lines up behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
A half-dozen backs have topped 100 yards in a game at least once since Jerome Bettis retired after the 2005 season. From Willie Parker to Najeh Davenport to Mewelde Moore to the current trio of Mendenhall, Redman and Dwyer, Pittsburgh has a way of getting what it needs out of the running game from whatever name happens to be at the top of the depth chart, regardless of pedigree.
Though Mendenhall has been the entrenched starter since being taken in the first round of the 2008 Draft, when he's been hurt — which has been often — the dropoff has been minimal.
Last year it was Redman — who signed as a rookie free agent in 2009 — gashing the Denver Broncos for 121 yards in a Wild Card loss. Last week it was Dwyer — a sixth-round pick the 2010 NFL Draft — repeatedly churning into the Cincinnati secondary.
"There are a lot of talented guys in that room," tight end Heath Miller said. "Generally one guy is carrying the ball so you don't get to see what's behind the starter a lot of times but (the backups) are not duds by any means, they've got a lot of talent and they probably deserve more carries than they get a lot of times."
It's why Dwyer isn't getting caught up in worrying about his status, though it's likely he'll start on Sunday against the Redskins. Dwyer understands whenever Mendenhall returns from a strained right Achilles, he'll almost certainly head right back to the bench. The same threat looms if Redman's bothersome ankles recover.
If Mendenhall and Redman get healthy at some point this season, there's even a chance Dwyer could return to the inactive list.
Dwyer is OK if that happens, confident that he's heading in the right direction. It's been a long slog over the last three years for the former Georgia Tech star who surprised some by coming out after his junior season.
He arrived at his first training camp out-of-shape and even now, his 5-foot-11, 229-pound frame is hardly imposing compared to the chiseled Mendenhall or the brawny Redman.
Unlike most of his teammates, Dwyer rarely takes his shirt off in the locker room and there's a small but noticeable bump over his midsection when he's in uniform.
Not that it matters when the ball is in his hands. Dwyer runs with a quiet controlled fury. Get the ball. Pick a hole and sprint.
"My game is just going straightforward and making things happen and being physical," Dwyer said. "That's who I've been ever since I was a kid. That's not going to change."
Good, because the Steelers don't want him to. In a way he's a smaller version of Bettis only without the "Bus" nickname or the Super Bowl ring, though former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward has an idea on what to call Dwyer if he can make his performance against the Bengals a habit.
"He's the minivan," Ward said. "He doesn't look perfect all the time. It's just a beige light van, no rims on the car, no tint on the windows. But he's one of the guys if you continue to give the rock too, gets you from Point A to Point B."
It's all the Steelers ask from any of their running backs. For all their collective gifts, Dwyer, Mendenhall and Redman merely serve as supporting actors in an offense that revolves around Roethlisberger.
Still, even Roethlisberger relishes the chance to finish off an opponent by taking a snap, turning around and handing it to a back until the defense breaks.
The quarterback got a pretty good view of Dwyer's handiwork against the Bengals. When Pittsburgh took over nursing a seven-point lead with 3:57 left, he hit Mike Wallace for a first down then gave it to Dwyer on four straight plays for runs of 14, 0, 3 and 32 yards.
On the final snap, Roethlisberger took the ball and kneeled down in victory formation then slapped Dwyer on the helmet.
"He ran guys over and got the tough yards," Roethlisberger said. "He found the speed to get down the field and into the secondary. He puts safeties in tough situations."
The same can't be said for Pittsburgh's coaching staff.
Tomlin is pleased with Dwyer's progress but makes no promises about the future. That's fine by Dwyer, who tries to heed running backs coach Kirby Wilson's advice to focus on the brotherhood of the position and not who's getting the ball.
"Kirby has always taught that's it's not about competing against each other, it's about helping each other," Dwyer said. "We all want to be the best."
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