Running game set for Steelers, murky for Giants - NBC Sports

Running game set for Steelers, murky for Giants
August 8, 2014, 3:15 pm

The New York Giants spent the offseason planning on the return of a healthy David Wilson to revitalize a running game that finished 29th in the league in yards rushing last season.

Time to try again.

The 23-year-old Wilson was forced to retire earlier this week because of a neck injury, leaving New York to scramble as it tries to bounce back from a forgettable 2013.

"He was the heart and soul of this team, a great energy guy," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "It's unfortunate that this happened."

The former first-round pick walked away from the game with "tears of joy," thankful simply for the memories of a too-brief NFL career.

Now his suddenly former team must move on without a clear picture of who will line up behind Eli Manning in the backfield when the regular season begins.

There were some encouraging signs in the Hall of Fame Game against Buffalo.

Rookie Andre Williams ran for a team-high 48 yards on seven carries in a 17-13 win. Coughlin will look for more on Saturday night when the Giants (1-0) host the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Rashad Jennings is atop the depth chart with journeyman Peyton Hillis behind him, followed by Williams and still raw prospects Kendall Gaskins and Michael Cox. Considering no player on the roster had more than the 733 yards rushing Jennings put up for Oakland in 2013, coach Tom Coughlin is eager to see if anyone separates himself from the field.

"Opportunity presents itself in many different ways," Coughlin said.

There are no such concerns in Pittsburgh, which brought in Hall of Famer Mike Munchak to work with a promising offensive line and signed burly running back LeGarrette Blount to spell the versatile Le'Veon Bell.

Bell set a team rookie record for total yards in 2013, running for 860 yards and eight touchdowns and catching 45 passes for 399 yards. The only real concern was consistency. Pittsburgh averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, a number the Steelers expect to go up this season.

"We want to be able to run the football when it needs to be done," Munchak said.

Enter Blount, who rushed for 772 yards while splitting carries with Stevan Ridley in New England last season. The 245-pound Blount averaged a healthy 5.0 yards per carry and steamrolled Indianapolis in the playoffs, racking up 166 yards and four touchdowns.

It's unlikely Blount will get such a heavy workload in Pittsburgh if Bell remains healthy. That's fine with Blount, who signed a two-year deal with the Steelers because he wanted to win.

Throw in rookie Dri Archer - who ran a blistering 4.28 40-yard dash at the combine - and the Steelers have three very different backs. That's kind of diversity should only help.

It's unclear how many carries each will see Saturday. Bell was slowed by a hamstring issue at the beginning of training camp, while Blount sat out practice earlier this week.

Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged some starters would play more than others, and with a line adjusting to its third coach in as many years, there's a good chance center Maurkice Pouncey - recovering from a knee injury that cost him almost the entire 2013 season - and others could see more than one series on the field.

Whoever lines up in front of him, Blount understands his job is to make the pile move. It's what the Steelers are supposed to do, right? Blount points to the team's rich history of big backs such as Hall of Famer Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis as proof the team has found a way to develop that physical running game even while the sport has evolved.

"Being that guys like Franco and the Bus came through here - Willie Parker and those guys - they were pretty good running backs coming through here," he said. "Hopefully I can stay long enough to be part of that group."

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