Ranking The 10 Best Running Backs in Steelers History


By Matt Papiernik, @Matt_Papiernik on Twitter


There are two things you think of when you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers and their history. First is their terrorizing defense they have had the majority of their franchise. Second is their hard nosed style of football, including their ability to run the ball. The Steelers have had several tough, nasty, hard running, running backs over their illustrious history. They have also had some speed demons and great receivers to compliment their tough style of play. The group below contains a lot of house hold names for Steelers fans, as well as some very interesting story lines and career paths.  Here are the 10 best running backs to every put on the Black and Gold.


10. Merril Hoge (1987-1993)

Starting off this list is a former full back that could do it all. Hoge was a rare breed at the time he played, due to his unique ability to catch the ball just as good as he could run it. Running backs weren’t asked to catch the ball nearly as much 30 years ago, so Hoge’s ability to contribute in the passing game added a unique wrinkle to the Steelers offense. Hoge only ranks 13th on the Steelers all-time rushing list, but he is also 3rd on the Steelers list for receiving yards by running backs, behind two people you will see near the top of this list. After Hoge’s time with the Steelers, he played one season with the Chicago Bears before retiring. While that doesn’t do much for his legacy in Pittsburgh, his time there is definitely worth mentioning. Hoge suffered a concussion in Chicago and was allowed to play without a full examination. Later in the season, he suffered another concussion and stopped breathing and needed to be resuscitated. Hoge then returned to be evaluated by the Steelers team physician at the time, Dr. Joseph Maroon, who determined that Hoge needs to retire in order to avoid serious damage. Hoge may not have ever had a Pro Bowl worthy season, but his duration on the team and his very unique skill set earns him a spot on this list.


9. Rashard Mendenhall (2008-2012)

Few rookies have as high of expectations as Mendenhall did for the Steelers. Mendenhall was ranked as the 30th best running back in the NFL as a rookie by ESPN before he even took a snap. Mendenhall struggled early on with fumbles, but went on to put up back to back 1,000 yard campaigns in his sophomore and junior seasons with the Steelers. The second 1,000 yard season he helped lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl appearance in Super Bowl XLV. However, Mendenhall made a costly mistake as he fumbled in the fourth quarter, which the Green Bay Packers proceeded to go down and score a touchdown. Mendenhall spent two more years in Pittsburgh after the Super Bowl loss, neither quite as effective as the ones prior. Even though Mendenhall is often remembered for a costly fumble that may have cost the Steelers a 7th Super Bowl, he is definitely a top 10 Steelers running back of all time, as they likely wouldn’t have made it there without him.


8. Dick Hoak (1961-1970)

Not only was Hoak a great running back during his playing days for the Steelers, he was also a great coach for over three decades as he operated as the Steelers running back coach from 1972-2007. The Steelers produced the most rushing yards in the league during Hoak’s tenure as a running backs coach, being the only team to rush for 30,000 yards. As a player, Hoak didn’t disappoint either. Hoak made the Pro Bowl in 1968, a year he rushed for over 850 yards and 3 touchdowns. When Hoak retired after his 10 seasons as a player, he was the Steelers 2nd all-time leading rusher, and still remains 7th on that list with 3,965 yards. While Hoak will inevitably be remembered more as a coach than a player, he was no slouch on the field and produced several solid seasons over the course of the 60’s.


7. John Henry Johnson (1960-1965)

Being a second round draft pick by the Steelers in 1953, many thought Johnson would be a stud for the Steelers for several years to come. However, Johnson decided to go play in the CFL for a year due to receiving more money. He proceeded to win the leagues MVP as both an offensive and defensive star. Fast forward many years later, Johnson joined the Steelers and had his most successive years in the NFL. Johnson made three consecutive Pro Bowls while in Pittsburgh, all at the age of 33 or older. He is also the oldest running back to rush for a 1,000 yards at the age of 35. He also holds the record for oldest player to rush for 200 yards in a game. He did so at the age of 34 against the Cleveland Browns, a game in which he out dueled the great Jim Brown. Johnson was eventually inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, and while his career with the Steelers didn’t take the conventional career path, he still is one of the best to ever carry the rock for the team.


6. Barry Foster (1990-1994)

Foster is a name not many Steelers fans, or NFL fans for that matter, will remember without some context clues due to his short NFL stint. Foster spent 5 seasons in the NFL, all with the Steelers. Even though his career was short lived, he may have had the best statistical season in Pittsburgh Steelers history. After spending his first two seasons in Chuck Noll’s doghouse for a couple mental mistakes, Foster burst onto the scene in 1992, which was also Bill Cowher’s first season as head coach. During that season, Foster recorded over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, something that was only done 15 times before him. Foster made the Pro Bowl that season and was also named a First Team All-Pro. Foster had two solid follow up seasons in Pittsburgh, but later retired after being traded to the Carolina Panthers due to health reasons. Foster had one of the best seasons in Steelers history, and definitely deserves this spot in the Steelers top 10 running backs.


5. Rocky Bleier (1968-1980)

If you don’t know all of Rocky Bleier’s story, you definitely should look it up as it is a great one. Bleier was drafted twice in 1968, once in the 16th round of the NFL/AFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and next by the U.S. Army. Bleier suffered multiple injuries while serving his country in the Vietnam War, including losing part of his right foot. He was told he would never play football again. However, Bleier started on a long journey to work his way back into the NFL. He spent a couple years getting himself back to NFL readiness, but by 1974 he was back to being in the Steelers rotation, and even recorded a 1,000 yard season in 1976. Bleier was often overshadowed on the field due to sharing the backfield with someone you will see later on this list, but his ability to run and block made him a significant piece of the Steelers game plan for the last 7 years of his career. Bleier isn’t only an all-time Steelers great, but also an American hero.


4. Willie Parker (2004-2009)

The top four spots on this list have a lot of debate. Willie Parker coming in as the fourth best Steelers running back of all-time is not a given, as he could easily have been slotted in the third spot. Parker was known for his breakaway speed that very few men possess, and that speed lead to him recording the longest run in Super Bowl history on the way to winning Super Bowl XL. Parker didn’t get many goal line touches, and for someone with his speed wasn’t a huge factor in the passing game either. Even without contributing in those areas, he still made his mark in Steelers history with his ability to turn any run into a huge play.


3. Le’Veon Bell (2013-2017)

Bell could have easily slid down to fourth on this list, but it could be argued he is actually the most talented running back to ever wear the Black and Gold. Bell played four seasons with the Steelers and was one of the best in the league. He made three Pro Bowls and had three All-Pro selections (1 First Team and 2 Second Team). Bell did not have a weakness while on the field as he could run, catch, block, juke, stiff arm, etc. If there was something you wanted out of a running back, Bell had it. Unfortunately, his memory in Pittsburgh wasn’t all positives as he had some suspensions and a year long hold out which effectively ended his time with the Steelers. Even with the non-football related topics, Bell still cemented himself as a great back in Pittsburgh Steelers history.


2. Jerome Bettis (1996-2005)

I will probably catch a bunch of heat for this one, but Jerome Bettis comes in at number two on this list. “The Bus” arguably has the best nickname in NFL history, and he had an amazing career to back that up. Bettis spent nine seasons with the Steelers and became their second all-time leading rusher by the time he announced his retirement on the championship podium after Super Bowl XL. Bettis rushed for over 10,000 yards with the Steelers and scored a total of 80 touchdowns during his time with the team. Bettis may have the best final season in history, as he decided to play one more season in 2005, and it resulted in him winning a Super Bowl in his home town of Detroit. Bettis was announced to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, and there is no doubt all Steelers fans will always remember the toughness The Bus brought to the Burgh.


1. Franco Harris (1972-1983)

There are very few people that walk this earth with as many accomplishments as Franco Harris in any field, let alone football. Harris is a Hall of Famer, 9-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro, NFL Man of the Year, 4-time Super Bowl champion, and the list goes on and on. He also is the focal point of arguably the most memorable play in NFL history, the Immaculate Reception. Harris rushed for more than 1,000 yards in both his first and last season in Pittsburgh, as well as an additional six times between those seasons. His 9 Pro Bowl appearances were in 9 consecutive seasons, and that stretch covered the Steelers 4 Super Bowl victories in 6 seasons. He is the Steelers all-time leading rusher, and tops the list for most touchdowns from scrimmage. There are very few people that can say they accomplished as much in their professional career as Harris did during his 11 seasons with the Steelers, and that is why he is the best running back in Pittsburgh Steelers history.


There it is, the top 10 Steelers running backs of all time. Definitely some were tougher to rank than others. What do you think, #SteelerNation?

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  1. Pingback: SN Podcast: Top 10 RB's and DL's in Steelers History 7/8/20 - SteelerNation.com

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