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.
Still, during his time in Pittsburgh, he averaged a respectable 3.8 yards per carry. He also scored 21 touchdowns and ran for more than 3,000 yards during his career. He was most successful in a four-year stretch when he rushed for more than 600 yards each season. His career didn’t last long after leaving Pittsburgh. He has since settled into a role as an NFL commentator for ESPN.
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.
Redman also struggled to ever bust off long plays, never once having a rush of more than 30 yards. Mix his lack of big plays with his inability touch the ball and it’s easy to see that Redman was a pretty bad running back. He was also good for a few fumbles a season, which when you touch the ball as rarely as he did, is a death knell to a career.
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.
He has very solid career numbers, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, including two seasons when he averaged a healthy margin over five. Despite his short career, Foster still ranks eighth in total carries in Pittsburgh history. It’s likely that Foster could’ve been higher on this list if it wasn’t for his nagging injuries but we will never get to know.
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.
Still, despite his mediocre production, Abercrombie received ample playing time. He would often be given double-digit carries on a per game basis and fail to produce them into much. This is made even more obvious when you look at his average rushing yards per game, which checks in at a meager 42.3. He also seemed to be stricken with ball control problems, losing the ball 13 times in a three-year span.
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.
He ranks sixth in Steelers franchise rushing yards and carries. This is a testament to Pollard’s ability to stay healthy and continue to produce the team. He also switched between running back and fullback, an underrated skill that helped Pollard remain useful. Pollard also was able to convert in the red zone, finishing his Steelers career with 20 rushing touchdowns, which is good enough for 15th in franchise history, which is good considering he was also a fullback.
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.
He would average 30.9 yards per game, which isn’t good at all. He was a fullback that still got to try running the ball nearly nine times a game. He did this in the late 60s, so I'm assuming that he was running in some pretty vanilla offenses. Still, regardless of the era, Gros’ Pittsburgh’s career was sad.
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.
Johnson ranks fourth in rushing yards in Steelers history with 4,381 yards. He has a robust 4.4 yards per carry for his career with the team. It also seems that he was faster than your average fullback, as he had season long runs of more than 40 yards in every season other than his final one when he only played in one game. He also led the league with the longest run, an 87-yard scramble in the 1960 season.
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.
If there was one major glaring hole in Pearson’s game, it was his ability to turn the ball over. He fumbled the ball a staggering 19 times while in Pittsburgh. That is an astoundingly high number for someone that didn’t get to touch the ball much. His fumble troubles most likely played into his lack of touches. Pearson struggled at running back and was often relegated to returning punts.
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.
Parker was efficient with his carries, averaging 4.3 yards every time he ran the ball. He finished his Steelers career with 5,378 rushing yards, good for third place in Steelers history. He also finished third place in rushing attempts. He would average nearly 70 rushing yards a game, a solid mark as one of the Steelers best running back.
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.
It probably has more to do with the era, but nothing on Rogel’s stat sheet is interesting. He seems like the typical 1950s football player. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1956 when he rushed for a whopping 476 yards and 2 touchdowns. It’s fair to say that Rogel struggled to make an impact on the game as well. He had multiple seasons when he was unable to have a run longer than 25 yards.
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.
Bell is arguably the best running back in football right now. He does this by running with a patience that many fans aren’t used to seeing. He is also an extremely gifted pass catcher. This blend of skills allows Bell to be a monster when you look at his yards from scrimmage. In the years that Bell has played double-digit games, he has topped 1,200 yards easily.
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.
He plodded around for the Steelers for six years and logged 737 carries. One season, Tracy had an astoundingly bad 2.7 yards per carry. He also dropped the ball way too much, recording 24 fumbles during his time wearing the black and gold. He would be traded midseason. The season he was traded saw him average 2.1 yards per carry.
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.
While his 3.9 career yards per carry isn’t great, it’s important to keep in mind how Bettis ran. He was a battering ram, using his size to gain tough yards. That style of running isn’t conducive to posting a high yards per carry number. Still, he was good at scoring touchdowns, finishing his Steelers career with 78.
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.
One of the weirdest parts of Hoak’s career comes from his lone Pro Bowl season in 1967. Hoak rushed for an abysmal 142 yards that season and finished with a measly 2.7 yards per carry. Hoak also seemed like he would struggle to break off big plays, with multiple seasons in which he failed to record a rush for more than 20 yards.
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.