16 Best Pittsburgh Steelers Running Backs of All Time

Eric Dockett

Photo
Le'Veon Bell was one of the best Steelers running backs of all time. © Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: This story was first published on Sep 14, 2019. The statistics for current players and coaches have been updated through May 2020

The Greatest Steelers Running Backs

If youve followed the Steelers, you've probably heard the term "Steelers Football." The phrase is often proclaimed by an announcer after a Steelers running back plows over a few unlucky defenders. Chances are it is an announcer who remembers some of the great backs in Steelers history and how they dominated the game.

What Does It Mean to Play Steelers Football?

  1. The first requirement is an intimidating defense that dominates opponents and makes it tough for them to put points on the board. Pittsburgh has fielded plenty of those defensive units over the years, and there are more than a few Steelers defenders in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  2. The next ingredient is a tough, hard-nosed rushing attack that controls the ball and methodically plows through opposing defenses. A good scoring drive based on running plays eats up the clock and keeps the ball out of the hands of the other team's offense.

A dominant defense and an unstoppable running gamethats Steelers Football. When a running back like Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, or John Henry Johnson tramples linebackers and safeties all game, it grinds opponents down and destroys their will to compete. By the time the fourth quarter rolls around, it is easy to see why opposing defenses would wish they were somewhere else.

The Steelers have had some incredibly talented players over the years . . . but every NFL team has talented players. What those teams dont have is a legacy of bullying and dominating opponents, and that is what brought the Steelers six Super Bowl championships. That's Steelers football. But you cant throw just any ball carrier out there and hope to have success; it takes a certain kind of player to fit into a power running offensive scheme.

What Makes a Great Running Back?

For the purposes of this article, I will be considering the following:

  • Rushing yards and touchdowns
  • Receiving yards and touchdowns
  • Pro Bowl selections
  • All-Pro rosters
  • Super Bowl championships
  • Overall contributions to the Steelers franchise
  • NFL legacy

Its tricky to piece it all together, but I think these are the best Steelers running backs of all time. Read on to find out why.

16. James Conner (2017Present)

James Conner was thrust into the spotlight in 2018 when halfback LeVeon Bell held out for the entire season. Conner responded with a Pro Bowl performance and gave Steeler Nation hope that hed become the next great Pittsburgh running back. He spent much of 2019 injured, and team injuries across the board made it difficult to judge his performance fairly. It is tough to guess what the future holds for Connor, so let's consider his place at number 16 a tentative spot on this list of all-time great Steelers backs.

Jersey Number: 30

Accolades as a Steeler

1x Pro Bowl

Stats as a Steeler

  • 37 Games
  • 1,581 Rushing Yards
  • 16 Rushing Touchdowns

15. Tom Tracy (19581963)

Tracy ran for 2,717 yards and 15 touchdowns in his time with Pittsburgh and caught 96 passes for 1,322 yards and 14 touchdowns. While those numbers may not seem impressive by todays standards, they were good enough to earn Tracy Pro Bowl appearances with the Steelers in 1958 and 1960.

Jersey Number: 30

Accolades as a Steeler

2x Pro Bowl

Stats as a Steeler

  • 60 Games
  • 2,717 Rushing Yards
  • 15 Rushing Touchdowns

14. Sidney Thornton (19771982)

Most Steelers fans think of Rocky Bleier as Franco Harris running mate throughout the 70s, and rightly so. But during the Super Bowl seasons of 1978 and 1979, Sidney Thornton played a significant role in the Steelers' rushing attack. In 1979, he started 10 games in place of Bleier and ran for 585 yards and six touchdowns. He ended his career with only 1,512 rushing yards, but with two Super Bowl rings.

Jersey Number: 38

Accolades as a Steeler

2x Super Bowl Champion

Stats as a Steeler

  • 74 Games
  • 1,512 Rushing Yards
  • 18 Rushing Touchdowns

13. Walter Abercrombie (19821987)

The mid-'80s were a tough time for Steeler Nation. While the team continued to utilize the same rushing attack that had earned them four Lombardi Trophies in the '70s, the cast of characters and the results were not the same. But there were bright spots, and Walter Abercrombie was one of them. In 79 games with the Steelers, he carried the ball for 3,343 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Jersey Number: 34

Stats as a Steeler

  • 79 Games
  • 3,343 Rushing Yards
  • 22 Rushing Touchdowns

12. John Fuqua (19701976)

Before Franco Harris, there was John Frenchy Fuqua. He spent his first year in the NFL with the Giants before coming to the Steelers in 1970. Fuqua led the Steelers in rushing in 1970 and 1971 and totaled 2,942 yards on the ground during his time in Pittsburgh. Fuqua will be forever remembered by Steelers fans as the intended receiver of Terry Bradshaws Immaculate Reception pass, which ricocheted into the arms of Franco Harris.

Jersey Number: 33

Accolades as a Steeler

2x Super Bowl Champion

Stats as a Steeler

  • 87 Games
  • 2,942 Rushing Yards
  • 21 Rushing Touchdowns

11. Frank Pollard (19801988)

If I were to ask you to name the sixth-leading rusher in Steelers history, I bet youd say a lot of names before you got to Frank Pollard. Pollard played most of his career at a time when the Steelers struggled. He never made a Pro Bowl and never had a 1,000-yard season, but he appeared in 111 games over nine seasons and managed to rack up 3,989 career rushing yards.

Jersey Numbers: 44, 30

Stats as a Steeler

  • 111 Games
  • 3,989 Rushing Yards
  • 20 Rushing Touchdowns
Photo
Will James Conner become one of the greatest Steelers backs of all time?© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

10. Dick Hoak (19611970)

In Dick Hoak's 10 years as a Steeler, he only saw two winning seasons. He led the Steelers in rushing in 1965, 1968 and 1969. From '61 to '64, he was part of a powerful rushing attack along with Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson. Hoak made a Pro Bowl in 1968 and is currently ranked seventh in Steelers history for all-time rushing yards with 3,965. Hoak retired from pro football in 1970 but stuck around to coach Steelers running backs from 1972 to 2007.

Jersey Number: 42

Accolades as a Steeler

1x Pro Bowl

Stats as a Steeler

  • 135 Games
  • 3,965 Rushing Yards
  • 25 Rushing Touchdowns

9. Rashard Mendenhall (20082012)

Mendenhall spent five seasons in Pittsburgh and was a member of two Super Bowl teams. He stepped in for a banged-up Willie Parker in 2009 and ran for 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns. The next season, he racked up 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns on the way to an AFC Championship win. Mendenhall is currently No. 10 on the Steelers all-time rushing list with 3,549 yards.

Jersey Number: 34

Accolades as a Steeler

1x Super Bowl Champion

Stats as a Steeler

  • 57 Games
  • 3,549 Yards
  • 29 Rushing Touchdowns

8. Barry Foster (19901994)

Barry Foster first came to the attention of Steeler Nation in 1990 when he treated a kickoff as a punt, stood aside, and watched the ball bounce along the ground until the opposing team recovered it. Who the heck is this guy, we all wondered aloud, but in much more colorful language.

In 1992, we found out who the heck that guy was: the man who would run for more yards in one season than any Steelers running back in team history. Foster's 1,690 yards set a team record that season and earned him Pro Bowl and All-Pro nominations. He made another Pro Bowl in 1993, but only rushed for half as many yards due to injuries. In '94, he ran for 851 yards despite missing five games. By 1995, Foster was out of Pittsburgh and out of the NFL, thus ending his short, dramatic, and bizarre pro football career.

Jersey Number: 29

Accolades as a Steeler

  • 2x Pro Bowl
  • 1x All-Pro

Stats as a Steeler

  • 62 Games
  • 3,943 Rushing Yards
  • 26 Rushing Touchdowns

7. Merril Hoge (19871993)

Merril Hoge was a versatile fullback who could carry the ball, catch passes, and block. His performance in the 1989 playoffs, when he turned in back-to-back 100-yard games against Houston and Denver, is the stuff of Steelers' legend. He finished his career in Pittsburgh with 3,115 rushing yards, 241 receptions and 34 total touchdowns.

Jersey Number: 33

Stats as a Steeler

  • 109 Games
  • 3,115 Rushing Yards
  • 21 Rushing Touchdowns

6. John Henry Johnson (19601965)

Johnson was a bruising fullback who spent time in San Francisco and Detroit before coming to Pittsburgh in 1960. He led the Steelers in rushing from 1961 to 1964 and made three straight Pro Bowls from 1962 to '64. He only spent six seasons with the Steelers, but it was enough to rack up 4,381 rushing yards and land him at number five for all-time leading rushers in Pittsburgh history. Today, Johnson is one of the former Steelers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Jersey Number: 35

Accolades as a Steeler

  • 3x Pro Bowl
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 1987

Stats as a Steeler

  • 67 Games
  • 4,381 Rushing Yards
  • 26 Rushing Touchdowns
Photo
Steeler running backs Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Sidney Thornton, and Rashard Mendenhall all helped bring Lombardi Trophies to Pittsburgh.Erik Drost [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

5. Rocky Bleier (19681980)

Rocky Bleier came to the Steelers in 1968. Near the end of an uneventful rookie season, he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Bleier was injured during his tour of duty and told he would never play football again, but he returned to the Steelers and fought his way back into football shape, eventually playing 10 more seasons in the NFL.

It's an inspiring story, but if Bleier wasn't one of the best running backs in Steelers history, he wouldn't have made this list. He started alongside Franco Harris in four Super Bowl victories and both backs ran for over 1,000 yards in 1976. Bleier only ranks ninth in all-time rushing yards for the franchise, and he never made the Pro Bowl, but there is no denying the impact this gutsy running back had in winning four Steelers' Super Bowl championships.

Jersey Number: 20

Accolades as a Steeler

4x Super Bowl Champion

Stats as a Steeler

  • 140 Games
  • 3,865 Rushing Yards
  • 23 Rushing Touchdowns

4. Willie Parker (20042009)

Parker was perhaps the fastest running back ever to play for the Steelers. He signed as an undrafted free agent who had run a 4.23-second 40 at the Scouting Combine the previous spring. By his second season as a Steeler, he had become the heir apparent to Jerome Bettis. Parker ran for 1,200 yards or better in three straight seasons and led the Steelers to two Super Bowl wins. He is currently the third leading rusher in Steelers history.

Jersey Number: 39

Accolades as a Steeler

  • 2x Pro Bowl
  • 2x Super Bowl Champion

Stats as a Steeler

  • 79 Games
  • 5,378 Rushing Yards
  • 24 Rushing Touchdowns
Photo
Running back Willie Parker (39) is the third-leading rusher in Steelers' history. SteelCityHobbies [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

3. LeVeon Bell (20132017)

Bell was a unique back in Steelers history due to both the wide-open offense he played in and his careful, patient running style. He seemed to violate every rule young players are taught about playing running back, yet he thrived. He was an example of how great players can not only break the rules and succeed, but sometimes even make up their own rules. He was also an excellent receiver, both out of the backfield and split out as a wide receiver.

Unfortunately, his tenure with the Steelers came to a dramatic end with a contract dispute in 2018, but during his time with the team, he was one of the greatest. Bell made three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams as a Steeler. He ranks fourth all-time in franchise history for rushing yards and eighth all-time in receptions.

Jersey Number: 26

Accolades as a Steeler

  • 3x Pro Bowl
  • 2x All-Pro

Stats as a Steeler

  • 62 Games
  • 5,336 Rushing Yards
  • 35 Rushing Touchdowns

2. Jerome Bettis (19962005)

Jerome Bettis was a 250-pound battering ram with incredible quickness for a man his size. He came to the Steelers after three seasons with the Rams that had earned him a reputation as a problem player. In Pittsburgh, he was everything but.

As a Steeler, Bettis crashed his way for 10,571 rushing yards and 78 rushing touchdowns, both second-best in team history. He made four Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team as a Steeler and inspired a Pittsburgh Super Bowl victory in Super Bowl XLone of the greatest wins in Steelers' history. Bettis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.

Jersey Number: 36

Accolades as a Steeler

  • 4x Pro Bowl
  • 1x All-Pro
  • 1x Super Bowl Champion
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 2015

Stats as a Steeler

  • 145 Games
  • 10,571 Rushing Yards
  • 78 Rushing Touchdowns

1. Franco Harris (19721983)

Fullback Franco Harris came to the Steelers in the 1972 draft and made an immediate impact. He ran for over 1,000 yards in his first season and scored 10 rushing touchdowns on his way to winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

But Harris and the Steelers' rushing attack were just getting started. From 1974 to 1979, Harris topped the 1,000-yard milestone every season and carried the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories. He made nine straight Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team and finished his career as the leading rusher in team history and No. 3 in NFL history. Harris was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

Jersey Number: 32

Accolades as a Steeler

  • 9x Pro Bowl
  • 1x All-Pro
  • 1972 Offensive Rookie of the Year
  • 4x Super Bowl Champion
  • Super Bowl IX MVP
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 1990

Stats as a Steeler

  • 165 Games
  • 11,950 Rushing Yards
  • 91 Rushing Touchdowns

Who Is the Best Steelers Running Back of All Time?

Franco Harris is not only the best Steelers running back in franchise history, but one of the greatest Steelers of all time. He holds the team record for most rushing yards in a career (11,950) as well as most rushing touchdowns (91) and total touchdowns (100). Harris is one of the main reasons the Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. He earned the Super Bowl MVP award after running for 158 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings in Super Bowl IX.

Steelers All-Time Leading Rushers

Player
Yards
Touchdowns
Years

Franco Harris

11,950

91

1972-1983

Jerome Bettis

10,571

78

1996-2005

Willie Parker

5,378

24

2004-2009

Le'Veon Bell

5,336

35

2013-2017

John Henry Johnson

4,381

26

1960-1965

Photo
Conner struggled in 2019 due to injuries. © Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Honorable Mentions and Blasts From the Past

There have been some running backs in Steelers history who had one or two good seasons in Pittsburgh, then went on their way. Others were blocking fullbacks who spent their careers opening holes for star backs. These honorable mentions may not have a place on this list of all-time best Steelers running backs, but if you are a Steelers fan, there is a good chance you'll remember them fondly.

  • DeAngelo Williams (20152016)
  • Isaac Redman (20092013)
  • Mewelde Moore (20082011)
  • Najeh Davenport (20062008)
  • Dan Kreider (20002007)
  • Verron Haynes (20022007)
  • Duce Staley (20042006)
  • Amos Zereoue (19992003)
  • Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (19982002)
  • Richard Huntley (19982000)
  • Erric Pegram (19951996)
  • Bam Morris (19941995)
  • John L. Williams (19941995)
  • Tim Worley (19891993)
  • Warren Williams (19881992)
  • Preston Pearson (19701974)

Why Dont NFL Teams Use Fullbacks Anymore?

Today's NFL teams do not use fullbacks as often as they once did, instead favoring spread offenses and dynamic passing attacks featuring three or more wide receivers and multiple tight ends. When running the ball, they often do so out of one-back sets and shotgun and pistol formations. A fullback is not required in this type of offensive game plan.

Until recently, the fullback was an important player in the Steelers' offense. Over the past 50 years, the Steelers have had three coaches, and each has used a different style of offense. Each offense makes its own set of demands on running backs, and every back mentioned in this article needed a specific set of attributes to succeed.

The Pro Set Offense

The Steelers ran out the pro set for most of the 1970s and 1980s under head coach Chuck Noll. This means two backs in the backfield, usually lined up side by side. While one is considered a fullback and the other a halfback, they share more commonalities than differences in their duties. Both backs had to run well with the ball and have the skills to block for the other.

Many NFL teams used a pro-style offense during the same period, and this was an age when the fullback was a vital ball carrier. Franco Harris was a fullback, as was Merril Hoge and John Henry Johnson. They got a lot of carries in an era when both the fullback and halfback needed to contribute to the running game.

I-Formation

The role of the fullback changed dramatically when the I-formation came into vogue in the 1980s. In the I-formation, the fullback lines up behind the quarterback, and the halfback (tailback) lines up behind the fullback.

This was the age of the feature back, when one superstar halfback got most of the carries. The fullback might get the ball once or twice a game in short-yardage situations, but for the most part, he was turned into a blocking specialist. Some teams also used them as receivers, and fullbacks like Larry Centers made a living catching passes out of the backfield.

The Steelers won a lot of games in the late-90s to mid-2000s by lining up 250-pound running back Jerome Bettis behind 250-pound fullback Dan Kreider and bulldozing any defense that came before them. In 2005, speedy Willie Parker took advantage of paths cleared by Kreider, and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

Modern Offenses

Looking at an NFL game today, something seems to be missing. Is the fullback truly gone, banished into the deep recesses of pro football history? Not entirely. Teams like the 49ers, Packers, and Chargers still have plenty of use for thembut many organizations dont carry a fullback on their roster at all. Other teams (like the Steelers) have one but rarely use him.

The trend in the modern NFL is to run the ball out of single-back sets, often from a shotgun or pistol formation. LeVeon Bell made his mark with the Steelers running in this kind of offense. The intent is to lean the offensive game plan toward the passing game and open up the defense with complex formations and plays.

Teams run RPOs, or run-pass option plays, where the quarterback decides after the snap whether he will hand the ball off or throw a pass. In many ways, this style of offense is the polar opposite of the methods the Steelers used to win six Super Bowls.

Steelers Single-Season Rushing Leaders

Player
Yards
Season

Barry Foster

1,690

1992

Jerome Bettis

1,665

1997

Willie Parker

1,494

2006

Jerome Bettis

1,431

1996

Le'Veon Bell

1,361

2014

What Happened to Steelers Football?

Sadly, the days of Steelers Football seem to have gone the way of the dropkick. The Steelers have always had great defensive playersand that hasn't changedbut the Steelers of today have fallen into the trendy traps of modern offenses with little use for a fullback. (Fullback Roosevelt Nix spent most of 2019 injured and did not appear to have a viable replacement.) It is unfortunate, and I would guess I am not alone in wishing the Steelers would return to their roots and play power football again.

(Note: The Steelers signed Derek Watt during the 2020 offseason and released Nix, who signed with Indianapolis. Watt is a fullback who saw a lot of snaps during his time with the Chargers.)

Running backs are not the commodities they once were. There was a time when almost every NFL offense was predicated on a feature back that got most of the carries and earned a big paycheck. Today, with the explosion of the passing game, a star running back is a helpful asset but no longer a requirement. Many teams even rotate three or more backs throughout the game, with all getting an equal number of carries.

Everything in the NFL goes in cycles. I predict that sometime in the next decade, an offensive coordinator will go back to power football and line up with a tight end, a fullback, and a tailback in an I-formation for most of the game. He will be called an innovator or maybe even a genius when his team wins a Super Bowl by smashing its way through flimsy NFL defenses that are designed to stop passing attacks. Really, he will just be doing what teams like the Steelers did for decades.

I could be wrong. Maybe I am just nostalgic for the days when Steelers backs carried the ball 30 times and took total control over a game by the fourth quarter. I enjoy the passing game, and I love that Ben Roethlisberger has matured into an elite quarterback, but it is hard for me to imagine there is a better way to play football than Steelers Football.

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