PITTSBURGH – Ask any of the people involved in the current — and at the moment only — drama surrounding the surging Pittsburgh Steelers about who should be the starting running back and you'll get a variety of answers. None of them definitive.
Jonathan Dwyer, whose 299 rushing yards lead the team, thinks the job belongs to injured Rashard Mendenhall, whenever Mendenhall's strained right Achilles heals.
Isaac Redman thinks it should be the "hot hand," which at the moment would be his after running for a career-high 147 yards in last week's season-defining triumph against the New York Giants.
Mendenhall, who has carried the ball just 19 times in the past 10 months after tearing the ACL in his right knee on New Year's Day, thinks the decision is out of his hands and would prefer to focus on his health.
Even the guy actually in charge of the depth chart is noncommittal.
"Whoever's being productive when healthy is going to get the totes," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I really think it's that simple. I'm not going to make it any more complex than it has to be."
Or any less murky either.
Redman will get the start on Monday night when the Steelers (5-3) host luckless Kansas City (1-7). The Chiefs have endured a miserable first half of the season, though the re-emergence of Jamaal Charles gives them clarity in the backfield.
A year removed from a torn ACL that ended his 2011 season after just two games, Charles is ninth in the NFL in rushing and remains one of the most explosive players in the league. He ran for 233 yards — the second-highest total of the season — in a 27-24 overtime win against the Saints that remains Kansas City's lone victory.
"You just can't let the guy get daylight because he's gone," Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "New Orleans was doing a great job and had a pretty good lead. Then, in two snaps he erased it. He went 90 yards with one and 50 yards with the next."
Charles' numbers have tumbled the last three weeks thanks to erratic quarterback play that has done little to prevent defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage to keep him in check.
While the Chiefs are sinking, the Steelers are soaring.
Pittsburgh has won three straight and is getting production from whoever happens to be bending over next to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the huddle.
Mendenhall returned from his rehab to rack up 101 total yards and a touchdown in a victory against the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 7. The comeback lasted all of a game. He strained his Achilles tendon the following week against Tennessee and hasn't played since.
His absence, however, has hardly derailed the running game. Dwyer — the third-string back at the beginning of the season — went over 100 yards in wins over Cincinnati and Washington before tweaking his right quadriceps.
Enter Redman, who shook off minor injuries in both of his ankles to thrash the Giants in 26 angry and clock-chewing carries.
All three backs are quick to credit the suddenly dominant offensive line and coordinator Todd Haley's streamlined playbook for helping the Steelers find the balance necessary to take pressure off Roethlisberger's capable shoulders.
All three also know the leash is short if they don't perform.
"It's like basketball, if the shooter has the hot hand, we're going to feed him the ball and if all of us are feeling it, we'll just rotate or something," Dwyer said.
Something the Steelers did with little success early in the season. Redman began the year as the starter but neither he nor Dwyer found much traction while splitting carriers. Pittsburgh ranked 31st in the league in rushing during the first three weeks and heralded Mendenhall's return as the spark needed to kickstart the running game.
It did. The flame, however, didn't go out when Mendenhall headed back to the sideline during the first half of a 26-23 loss to Tennessee on Oct. 11.
Dwyer and Redman have both thrived while not having to look over their shoulder. Redman and Mendenhall were both inactive when Dwyer rolled through the Bengals and Redskins, and Mendenhall and Dwyer weren't in uniform against the Giants.
The last time Dwyer and Redman played together they combined for 26 yards on 12 carries in a befuddling 34-31 upset at Oakland on Sept. 23, including a fourth-quarter fumble by Dwyer that helped the Raiders rally and led Tomlin to bench the former Georgia Tech star for the next two games.
Dwyer responded by becoming the first Steelers running back in four years to top 100 yards in consecutive games. Did he earn more playing time? That's not his call.
"I've done my job," Dwyer said. "The two weeks they needed me to step up, I stepped up. I did what I needed to do to help us win some games. I went down and Red stepped up and he did his job. It just shows that there's no let off from our group."
And no pecking order either. At least, not at the moment.
"At times this season we've had a running back by committee approach because none of them had been overly effective at that time," Tomlin said. "When someone's effective, they'll get the ball."
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