One of the NFL’s most iconic franchises, the Pittsburgh Steelers, have been blessed with an abundance of top tier talent. It’s one of the reasons that they have been able to win six championships and remain one of the NFL’s best franchises year in and year out. When you look at their Ring of Honor, you see Hall of Famers littering it. It’s the kind of franchise that many NFL fans would kill to be a part of.
Due to their dominant run in the 1970s that was fueled by defense, the Steelers' most iconic players are often associated with defenders. Everyone thinks of Jack Lambert and Mean Joe Greene, two of the key cogs of the “Steel Curtain” defense that dominated the league when they think of great Steelers. Even though it’s easy to fixate on that side of the ball, you’d be remiss to not pay homage to their sneaky good offensive history.
Even though people will almost always think of defenders when they think of Pittsburgh, there is a surprisingly deep stable of talented running backs. They span across the Steelers' 83-year history and each has made their impact on the franchise in their own unique way. There is also another substantial group on the other side of the spectrum. When you have existed for nearly a century, you’re bound to have some scrubs player for you. The Steelers are no different. This list takes a chance to honor some of the best running backs that Pittsburgh fans have gotten a chance to watch play. It also attempts to balance out the success with a nice splash of failure, by highlighting the worst the players that wore the black and gold.
15 Best: Merril Hoge
Merril Hoge played fullback, which is a position that used to be a major part of offenses back in the day. Hoge played for the Steelers for seven years and had an above average career. As the fullback, he wasn’t asked to carry the ball as much as today’s running backs. He would often be asked to block for others.
14 Worst: Isaac Redman
An often forgotten piece of Pittsburgh Steelers history, Isaac Redman enjoyed a five-year career with the team. Each of them was wildly bland, as Redman’s inability to run well often prevented him getting onto the field. His career yards per carry looks okay at 4.1, but then you realize that he rarely got to touch the ball and you figure out that those numbers are inflated.
13 Best: Barry Foster
Despite a short five-year career, Barry Foster made an impact with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He would be named to two Pro Bowls and was selected to the All-Pro team in 1992. Unsurprisingly, the All-Pro season was Foster’s best, as he led the league in rushing attempts with 390 and collected nearly 1,700 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also averaged a robust 105 yards per game. This season was Foster’s only healthy season, which is a major factor into why his career sputtered out.
12 Worst: Walter Abercrombie
Walter Abercrombie doesn’t seem like an embarrassingly bad player, he just seems very underwhelming. Despite receiving triple digit carries throughout his career, Abercrombie failed to ever top 1,000 yards. Even beyond that, Abercrombie would average an extremely pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry. That is more or less the equivalent of the Mendoza line for football players which only hammers home the idea that he was wildly mediocre.
11 Best: Frank Pollard
While Frank Pollard’s numbers don’t scream awesome running back, he gets a spot on this list because of his ability to stick with the team. He spent his entire career with the Steelers, a total of nine seasons. He had a robust 4.2 career yards per carry, which isn’t exactly earth shattering, but is still pretty good.
10 Worst: Earl Gros
It seems unfair to focus on Gros too much because of his era and short career with Pittsburgh, but it’s really bad and it does deserve a quick shoutout on this list. In a very forgettable three-year stint with the team, Gros failed to crack 4 yards a carry in any season. He would leave Pittsburgh with an abysmal 3.5 yards per carry on 339 carries. I have no idea what the team saw from Gros that made them want to sign him AND give him more than 300 carries in his stint with the team.
9 Best: John Henry Johnson
Another fullback, John Henry Johnson had a very productive career despite being asked to block for the majority of it. Johnson played for the Steelers for six years, the longest stop of his career. He would be named to three consecutive Pro Bowls. These were his best seasons, twice cracking the 1,000-yard rushing mark during the run.
8 Worst: Preston Pearson
While it had been a quick five-year stint, Preston Pearson’s time with the Steelers is something that many fans would rather forget. Pearson would start 48 games for the black and gold and never really did much of anything. During his half-decade with the team, he never rushed for over 605 yards. He would serve the majority of the time as Franco Harris’s backup.
7 Best: Willie Parker
Coming from North Carolina, Willie Parker was able to carve out a big role with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Parker would make the Pro Bowl twice with the team, once in 2006 and again in 2007. He had a great three year stretch with the team, rushing for more than 1,200 yards in each of those seasons. Parker was also a big piece of two Super Bowl Championship teams, which boosted his spot on this list.
6 Worst: Fran Rogel
Another throwback, Fran Rogel was a plodding fullback from the early days of the NFL. Rogel never came close to rushing for more than 600 yards in any season. It’s easy to see why when you look at his 3.6 yards per carry. Rogel also seemed uninterested in holding onto the ball, fumbling multiple times every season. His worst was his rookie season when he fumbled away seven balls.
5 Best: Le'Veon Bell
The only reason that Le’Veon Bell isn’t higher on this list is that the majority of his career is still unwritten. As it stands right now, Bell is already in rarefied air as far as Steelers running backs go. He currently ranks fifth in rushing yards all-time for the franchise, despite only playing for the team for four seasons. He also has been injured or suspended every season, making his ranking on the rushing list even more impressive.
4 Worst: Tom Tracy
At one point in the NFL, Tom Tracy was a workhorse running back. That is a terrifying thought because he wasn’t very good. He averaged 3.7 yards per carry and would receive a little more than 12 carries a game during his time in Pittsburg. Like so many other players on this list, Tracey played in an older era. Still, it was obvious that he struggled.
3 Best: Jerome Bettis
A two-time All-Pro, Jerome Bettis sits comfortably as the second best running back in Steelers history. He is second in yards, attempts, and touchdowns. He also was a key part of helping Pittsburgh win a championship in 2005, which was also his final season. Bettis was a truck that helped wear down other teams. He would top 900 yards rushing in seven of his nine seasons for the team. He also led the leagues in carries in 1997. He was a true workhorse running back.
2 Worst: Dick Hoak
I’m not sure how much to knock Hoak because of his era, but everything about his stats screams awful running back. Hoak played with the Steelers from 1961 to 1970 and collected the fourth most carries in the franchise's history. How did the workhouse running back do with all those carriers? Pretty poorly, as he rushed for a career average of 3.5 yards per carry.
1 Best: Franco Harris
A bruising Hall of Famer running back, Franco Harris was the perfect embodiment of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense during their championship runs in the 1970s. Harris was a part of four championship team and would be named to the Pro Bowl nine times. He would average more than seven and a half touchdowns a season in his 13-year run with Pittsburgh. He also wasn’t exactly a plodder, as his career 4.1 yards per carry is very respectable.
Harris is also an iconic player as a key cog in the “Immaculate Reception,” one of the NFL’s most memorable plays. You can also tell how durable Harris was, with his franchise leading 2,881 rushing attempts. Unsurprisingly, he is also the team’s leading rusher with 11,950 rushing yards through his career.
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