16 Best Pittsburgh Steelers Running Backs of All Time

Updated on March 23, 2020
Le'Veon Bell was one of the best Steelers running backs of all time.
Le'Veon Bell was one of the best Steelers running backs of all time. | Source

The Greatest Steelers Running Backs

If you’ve followed the Pittsburgh 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, exactly?

  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 Steeler 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 game: that’s 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 don’t 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 can’t throw 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

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

16. James Conner

2017-Present

James Conner was thrust into the spotlight in 2018 when halfback Le’Veon Bell held out for the entire season. Conner responded with a Pro-Bowl performance and gave Steeler Nation hope that he’d become the next great Pittsburgh running back. He spent much of 2019 injured or underperforming, 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 of 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 Touchdowns

15. Tom Tracy

1958-1963

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 today’s standards, they were good enough to earn Tracy two Pro Bowl appearances with the Steelers in the late ’50s and early ‘60s.

Jersey Number: 30

Accolades as a Steeler

2x Pro Bowl

Stats as a Steeler

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

14. Sidney Thornton

1977-1982

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, Sydney 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 Touchdowns

13. Walter Abercrombie

1982-1987

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 Touchdowns

12. John Fuqua

1970-1976

Before Franco Harris, there was John “Frenchy” Fuqua. He spent his first year in the NFL with the New York 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 Bradshaw’s 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 Touchdowns

11. Frank Pollard

1980-1988

If I were to ask you to name the sixth-leading rusher in Pittsburgh Steelers history, I bet you’d 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 Touchdowns

Will James Conner become one of the greatest Steelers backs of all time?
Will James Conner become one of the greatest Steelers backs of all time? | Source

10. Dick Hoak

1961-1970

In Dick Hoak's ten years as a Steeler, he only saw two winning seasons. He led the Steelers in rushing in 1965 and 1968, and in '63 and '64, he was part of a powerful rushing attack alongside 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 1970-2007.

Jersey Number: 42

Accolades as a Steeler

1x Pro Bowl

Stats as a Steeler

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

9. Rashard Mendenhall

2008-2012

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 number ten 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 Touchdowns

8. Barry Foster

1990-1994

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. In '94 he ran for 851 yards. 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 Touchdowns

7. Merril Hoge

1987-1993

The late 1980s were a rough time to be a Steelers fan, but Steeler Nation still had its share of great running backs. 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 Touchdowns

6. John Henry Johnson

1960-1965

Johnson was a bruising fullback who spent time in San Francisco and Detroit before coming to the Steelers in 1960. He led the Steelers in rushing from 1961 to 1964 and made three straight Pro Bowls from 1962 to 1964. 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 Touchdowns

Steeler running backs Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Sidney Thornton, and Rashard Mendenhall all helped bring Lombardi Trophies to Pittsburgh.
Steeler running backs Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Sidney Thornton, and Rashard Mendenhall all helped bring Lombardi Trophies to Pittsburgh. | Source

5. Rocky Bleier

1968-1980

Rocky Bleier came to the Steelers in 1968. After an uneventful rookie season, he was drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam. 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 ten 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 a thousand 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 Touchdowns

4. Willie Parker

2004-2009

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 forty 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. Parker is one of four running backs I chose for my Steelers All-Franchise team.

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 Touchdowns

Running back Willie Parker (39) is the third-leading rusher in Steelers' history.
Running back Willie Parker (39) is the third-leading rusher in Steelers' history. | Source

3. Le’Veon Bell

2013-2017

Bell was a unique back in Steelers history due to both the type of offense he played in and his 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 Touchdowns

2. Jerome Bettis

1996-2005

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 earned him a reputation as a problem player. In Pittsburgh, he was everything but. Bettis crashed his way for 10,571 career 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 2005, one 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 Touchdowns

1. Franco Harris

1972-1983

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

Harris and the Steelers rushing attack were just getting started. From 1974 to 1979, Harris topped the thousand-yard milestone every season and carried the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories. He made nine straight Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team; he finished his career as the leading rusher in team history and number three 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 Touchdowns

Who Is the Best Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back of All Time?

Franco Harris is the best Steelers running back in franchise history and one of the greatest Pittsburgh 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 Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX.

Pittsburgh 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
Conner struggled in 2019 due to injuries.
Conner struggled in 2019 due to injuries. | Source

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. They 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 (2015-2016)
  • Isaac Redman (2009-2013)
  • Mewelde Moore (2008-2011)
  • Najeh Davenport (2006-2008)
  • Dan Kreider (2000-2007)
  • Verron Haynes (2002-2007)
  • Duce Staley (2004-2006)
  • Amos Zereoue (1999-2003)
  • Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (1998-2002)
  • Richard Huntley (1998-2000)
  • Erric Pegram (1995-1996)
  • Bam Morris (1994-1995)
  • John L. Williams (1994-1995)
  • Tim Worley (1989-1993)
  • Warren Williams (1988-1992)
  • Preston Pearson (1970-1974)

Why Don’t NFL Teams Use Fullbacks Anymore?

NFL teams do not use fullbacks as often because they employ 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 recent times, 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 career. 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.

The Power I

The role of the fullback changed dramatically when the power I came into vogue in the 1980s. In the power I, 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 of the Cardinals 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 fullbacks like Dan Kreider and Jon Whitman and bulldozing any defense that came before them. In 2005 and 2008, speedy Willie Parker took advantage of paths cleared by Kreider, and the Steelers won two Super Bowls.

Modern Offenses

Looking at an NFL game today, something seems to be missing. The fullback is gone, banished into the deep recesses of pro football history.That’s not entirely true—teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, and Los Angeles Chargers still have plenty of use for them—but many organizations don’t 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. Le’Veon 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 players and that hasn't changed, but the Steelers of today have fallen into the trendy traps of modern offenses with nary a fullback to be found. (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.

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 a power 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 thirty 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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