Steelers Running Backs: Mendenhall All By Himself

Rashard Mendenhall has proven to be a solid back on the field. Other than the fumble in the Super Bowl, and all of the fair whether fans that cast him out after, Rashard has been a consistent weapon in the Steelers’ offense, and helped lead the Steelers to a 3-1 start in the 2010 season during Ben Roethlisberger’s 4 game suspension.

I talk a lot about Big Ben being a great passer, and how we have much to see from this passing offense in years to come, but there is no pass game without a run game. The Steelers live by the old-school philosophy that the run sets up the pass, and it is not the other way around. Whether that sentiment is changing in Pittsburgh is still up for debate, but what isn’t in question is how important it is to have a strong rushing game.

Unfortunately, where it stands, the Steelers only have one productive running back. Rashard Mendenhall has been a go-to player for the Steelers ever since he won the job from an injured Willie Parker in 2008. Where Rashard has had some less than spectacular moments (twitter antics, Super Bowl Fumble etc.) he has shown that he is a reliable player on the field. He’s been carrying the bulk of the load for the last two seasons, (2009: 242 carries for 1,108 yds, 2010: 324 carries for 1,273 yds). Over three seasons he averages 4.2 yards per carry and seems to only be getting stronger.

Now for those of you who are ready to get rid of Rashard because of what he said about the OBL killing and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, just remember what you’re getting yourself into here. Rashard is literally the only capable back we have as it stands right now. The only other back capable of making some plays is the young and inexperienced (though spirited) Isaac Redman. Red-Zone Redman, as he’s know by his peers, shows flashes of brilliance when he lowers his head a barrels through the defensive line for a converted 3rd down, or TD. Before Redman, there wasn’t a chance we’d convert a 3rd and 1 on a run play. Since his arrival, we’ve at least started to get back some of that stank on 3rd and shorts. That being said, Redman is young and is not built to take such a heavy load like Rashard.

And that is precisely what makes me nervous. In my humble opinion, Mewelde Moore isn’t worth the cleats that he straps on every day. He is ungodly slow, and for some reason Bruce Arians still thinks it’s smart to put Moore in on short yardage situations. Moore used to be nick-named “the chain mover,” but I just don’t see it anymore. He’s old and slow and needs to go.

So, other than Rashard and Redman, there is no one but Jonathan Dwyer, and the newly drafted Baron Batch. Unless the Steelers decide that Redman is ready to take on a heavier load, we could see Rashard’s play diminish more quickly than we’d like. In this league, the running back position is the hardest at which to maintain dominance. Getting hit so many times and taking so many carries, especially in a run-first offense like the Steelers, can take a RB out of commission very quickly. Just look at what happened to Willie Parker. He went from rushing for like a million yards to being lost in oblivion with in a season. That’s a very fast decline, and unfortunately Willie’s story is pretty common among Running Backs.

So, if we can be willing to recognize the fact that the Steelers were already well on their way to losing that Super Bowl against the Packers long before Kemo missed another block and let Matthews hit Rashard at full speed (NFL network did a math behind the game series where they analyzed this play and showed that due to the force at which Matthews was allowed to hit Rashard, Rashard litterally never had a chance at holding on to that ball), we will see that Rashard is our only hope, and the only way to keep him performing at his best is to have a back that can relieve him of his duties from time to time. Bettis never did it all, neither did Franco. Bettis and FWP had each other. Franco and Rocky had each other. Franco would run around people, turn the corner, and fly. Rocky would just run right through them. Rashard needs a Rocky, and I think that guy has got to be Redman.

Obviously there are other scenarios that could take place here. You all know about the fans’ call to can Rashard and bring in a Free Agent. Tiki Barber has said numerous times that the Steelers are on his “short list” of teams to where he’d like to return and play football again. As Craig has pointed out many times on this site, that’s just not likely. There are also these young dudes, particularly Dwyer who is in his second year, who could potentially be seen as contributors depending on how much work he does in the off-season.

Really, the running back situation is pretty up in the air. I would love to see Rashard continue to carry the ball in Pittsburgh, and I would love to see Redman be his sole reliever with a little Dwyer worked in, and maybe that’s where it’s going, but there is just no way to know for sure what they’re thinking in the Steelers’ front office.

I just want to be sure that the Steelers don’t pull another Willie Parker and work Rashard so hard that they lose him after another one or two good seasons. Rashard is young and strong right now, and he is only going to get better. Let’s make sure we keep it that way by complimenting his running with another Back, preferably one who is a “up and down” or “north and south” back. One who is Bettis-like or Blier-like. If we can accomplish that kind of balance in the run game, and an overall run/pass balance that is effective, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense will be one to be reckoned with.

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