GREEN BAY—Eddie Lacy just as easily could be playing for the Steelers this Sunday, against Le'Veon Bell and the Packers. Instead, it'll be the reverse.
They are rookie running backs that have each become the featured ball carriers for their respective teams. The Steelers made Bell the 48th pick of this year's draft; the Packers selected Lacy 13 picks later.
"We thought Bell was the guy for us, just like Green Bay probably thought Lacy was the guy for them. Those are all the decisions we all go through. There's no right or wrong; it's about what's right for you and Le'Veon Bell was right for us," Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said during a conference call with Packers media on Wednesday.
Lacy has had the more productive rookie season, rushing for 1,028 yards, eight touchdowns and likely offensive rookie of the year honors. Lacy has also caught 31 passes.
Bell was injured early in the season and missed several games. Since then, he's rushed for 646 yards and six touchdowns. His real strength has been as a receiver, catching 43 passes for 388 yards.
This Sunday at Lambeau Field, Lacy and Bell square off in a showdown of rookie running backs. More importantly, it's a game critical to the Packers' division title and playoff hopes.
"We wanted a running back at that spot and obviously Eddie Lacy was in the conversation. Not only did we interview him in Indy, we brought him in for a trip here prior to the draft," Tomlin.
There have been reports that Lacy was the Steelers' guy until they were scared off by a toe surgery Lacy had undergone. It has also been said the Packers had a fondness for Bell.
"I like the growth and development of Le'Veon. He's getting better every week and developing into a guy we can count on in just about every situation that's important. In preparation for Green Bay, I've had an opportunity to look at Eddie Lacy. He's a tough guy to tackle. He's got good feet through contact and doing an awesome job of running the football for them, but I would be remiss if I also didn't mention that Starks is doing some really good things running the football as well, John Kuhn is doing good things as well from a lead block and a blitz pick-up standpoint, and I think largely as a group their backfield is doing an awesome job and we have to work hard to minimize all of those guys," Tomlin said in summarizing what has become a mini-controversy.
The Steelers are trying to win a game that will allow them to avoid a losing season. After an 0-4 start, they can get to 8-8 with a win on Sunday and one at home against Cleveland the following week.
"We're not worried about moral victories, to be honest with you," Tomlin said.
The Steelers cling to slim hope of a playoff berth, but that hope might be extinguished by kickoff time on Sunday.
When the Steelers were 0-4, all appeared hopeless. At 6-8, the Steelers are starting to identify players for their future.
"We're just really focused on what's required for us to win this week. Obviously, in the midst of that, maybe we're doing some of those things but that's not our achieved goal, or even a minor goal from that standpoint. Working with the guys we're working with, we try to put the pieces together to give ourselves a better chance to win this week," Tomlin said, keeping the focus on the present.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continues to give the Steelers the best chance of winning now. He's having another outstanding season, having thrown 25 touchdown passes and accumulated a 94.3 passer rating, despite having been sacked 40 times and spending much of every game avoiding sacks.
What does Roethlisberger remember from Super Bowl XLV, when the two teams faced each other in Dallas?
"We lost. That's pretty much all. I've been fortunate enough to win two and lose one; that's all you remember when you lose," Roethlisberger said.
The Steelers' motivation this week?
"To win the game; that's always the motivation. The motivation is to always come out and give it our all and try to win the game you're playing that week," he said.
It's a game that could be defined as the return of Aaron Rodgers.
"Just as kind of the quarterback fraternity, I'm a big fan of Aaron's and I know him, so I want him to be healthy. If's he's ready to come back, then he should," Roethlisberger said.
One team is trying to win a third consecutive division title. The other one is trying to get back to its customary place in the playoffs, though that'll likely be in another year. Each team's rookie running back will go a long way in defining this season. Additional coverage - Dec. 18