Steelers won't be running on empty

PITTSBURGH -- The difference a year makes at running back is striking.

Consider the Pittsburgh Steelers went into their season opener last year with Isaac Redman, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling as their top three running backs.

None is in the NFL right now, though injuries are a factor there.

The Steelers' top three running backs going into the season opener Sunday are Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer.

The trio, in addition to being a major upgrade in talent, offers power, speed and versatility.

The biggest question -- aside from the judgment exhibited by the top two backs a couple of weeks ago -- is whether there will be enough work to keep everyone happy.

"There's never enough touches," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said with a grin, "but if we stay on the field there will be enough touches [to go around]."

A couple of factoids dug up by my colleagues at ESPN Stats & Information could indicate how the roles of the running backs will evolve this season.

  • Bell caught 45 passes in 13 games last season, and his 65 targets were the most times quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has ever thrown to a running back in a season. Bell, who missed the first three games last season because of a sprained foot, will get the most touches this season among the running backs because a significant amount of them will come in the passing game.

  • Blount averaged 2.16 yards after contact last season, third-highest in the NFL. The 6-foot, 250-pounder gives the Steelers something they haven't had since Jerome Bettis: a big, punishing back with good feet who can help the Steelers grind out the clock when they have a lead in the fourth quarter.

  • Archer is the X-factor of the trio because of his speed and versatility. The Steelers will lean heavily on Bell and Blount when running the ball and try to get Archer the ball in space.

One thing that is certain to happen no matter how the situation at running back plays out: The Steelers stop the decline in the ground game that has taken place the last three seasons.

Since piling up 120.3 rushing yards per game in 2010, the Steelers have averaged 118.9, 96.1 and 86.4 rushing yards per game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I'm excited about where we are with the guys in the backfield," Haley said. "Le'Veon's 100 percent going into it this year, he's got almost a full year of experience playing in the league, which is huge. LeGarrette Blount is a proven commodity, a big back at the position. I'm excited to see Dri Archer when he's getting his backfield snaps."