With Rashard Mendenhall out with an ACL injury, Jonathan Dwyer shelved with a bum foot, Mewelde Moore ailing with a sprained MCL, and Isaac Redman suddenly coming down with a case of “fumble-itis,” the Steelers have quite a few issues at the RB position entering the 2011 Playoffs. Bad timing I know, but Pittsburgh must find a way to cobble together a consistent and fumble-free ground attack as they enter the Postseason. I do however feel that there is one “X-Factor” that the Steelers could count on in the upcoming weeks who definitely has a lot to play for this January/February: RB John Clay.
For those of you that did not read it, Clay was actually the subject of my first article here at NPC. In it, I discussed the merits of having Clay on the team and also how Clay could be a terrific addition to the Practice Squad in 2011 as a UDFA. With his immense size (6’1″ 248 lbs.), I thought that with a bit of seasoning Clay could fit the mold of a typical throwback runner for the Steelers and help with the Goal Line rushing chores too.
Well, Clay’s seasoning period has ended in 2011, and he will now have his best chance to shine this January with some extended playing time. Don’t get me wrong, Redman’s performance last Sunday (92 yards on the ground and 18 on his catches) was nice statistically and he gave an overall tremendous effort, no bones about it. However, Isaac’s two fumbles were drive-killers and took points off the scoreboard. And you’ve gotta believe that Kirby Wilson, Bruce Arians, and Tomlin are a bit tentative to use Redman in a featured role now that the games have everything riding on them. Sure, Redman hadn’t fumbled all season long, but you simply can’t have an RB cough up the ball at the most important part of the season (right Rashard?). That being said, it would come as no shock to me that Redman’s touches will be a bit more limited in the Postseason even with both Mendenhall and Moore out (Down from 25 a game to likely 15).
Clay’s Big Opportunity
If my theory regarding Redman’s touches holds true, Clay should get multiple chances to prove himself because he will be the #2 guy on the roster at the RB spot. What Clay does with those chances is entirely up to him, because the window of opportunity for an N.F.L. RB to prove himself is paper thin these days. Thus, all signs should to be pointing to Clay running like a “bat out of Hell” come Sunday afternoon.
The Steelers will need to at least run the ball effectively this weekend if they want to get out of Denver with a “W.” If Clay can go “ground-and-pound” and get 4 yards a pop for maybe 10-15 carries (coupled with a nice performance from Redman), the pressure will be taken off of Ben to constantly throw on his bum ankle. With a solid rushing attack, Ben can get some high percentage throws to make. With high percentage throws attacking a Denver Defense selling on the run, the Steelers will coast to an easy victory because they will likely only need 14 Total Points to win.
The time is now for the Steelers to get back to their roots as a “Power Football” team with regards to their running game. Without Mendy. tip-toeing (part of that is the Offensive Line’s fault though), Redman and Clay will be the top two on the depth chart. If there was any time for Clay to find his niche in the N.F.L., these upcoming weeks will provide the ample time and place.
Denver’s Run Defense
Clay should be walking into a favorable situation because Denver’s Defense has been mediocre at best against the run game at best this season. They gave up 126.3 yards per game in the regular season which was good for 22nd in the entire League. Decent, but considering their competition, nothing to write home about. But most importantly, bigger and powerful backs such as Michael Bush, Toby Gerhart, Jackie Battle, and Marion Barber have found some measures of success against Denver’s Run Defense in 2011. Which by all accounts is favorable to a player like Clay that will be getting some touches on Sunday (and hopefully beyond).
Yet not only has Denver’s Run Defense been suspect this season, teams have begun to run against Denver’s Defense over their three game losing streak to close the regular season. Over their three game skid (against New England, Buffalo, and Kansas City), Denver’s Defense has given up an average of just over 135 yards on the ground. Sure, some of that can be attributed to the Broncos getting pasted by New England and Buffalo late in the games, but the stat still reveals one important thing: If Denver is jumped on top of by a wide margin, the opposition can use the running game and clock against the Broncos with the run game. And these Offense’s Denver is facing? They rank 13th, 15th, and 20th in terms of Rush Yards per game, not exactly Baltimore and Ray Rice if you ask me, so there is definitely some success to be had against this Defense.
What Clay Can Bring
Clay has shown flashes of his ability in these last two games of the season. Clay’s first and only carry against St. Louis actually went for his first career TD. Sure it was against the Rams’ shoddy run Defense, but for a big guy to move like that in space for the 10 yard TD, break free like he did, and the Line to block like that were very good signs. Against Cleveland, Clay had 9 carries for 31 yards, unsexy I know, but those were some really tough yards he ended up gaining, and he showed a knack for moving the pile well on some of those runs too. Also, Clay had a couple of nice plays while pass blocking for Ben and allowed Roethlisberger to complete some key passes without getting planted.
Versus Denver, Clay will likely be used in that “pile pushing” role again all over the field and likely at the Goal Line. His size and bruising ability should likely allow him to have his number called upon to convert some very important First Downs as the game wears on into the 2nd Half. Well, that’s contingent on Bruce Arians actually committing to the run on 2nd and 3rd and 1 or 2, but that’s for another article.
Overall, the less that Ben has to take long drops and instead rely on the ground game the better. I won’t lie to you readers, the last thing that I want to see is Ben getting mauled by likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller, Pro Bowler Elvis Dumervil, and the rest of Denver’s pass rush causing turnovers on Sacks and errant throws.
Denver’s Offense should theoretically do nothing against the Steelers’ Defense and giving the Broncos free points on Defense (as well as Special Teams) to stay in the game long enough for “Tebow Magic” is downright unforgivable. Thus, Clay’s presence and effectiveness running the football are needed for this Sunday’s showdown, and likely for the rest of the Postseason as well.
Who knows? If Clay does well on Sunday and throughout the rest of Pittsburgh’s foray into the Postseason, he might find himself a permanent spot on the roster next season. Furthermore, if Clay emerges in these Postseason games and plays well throughout 2012, the Steelers might even find Mendenhall, Me-Mo, or Dwyer (they’ll give Baron Batch another shot) expendable.
I know, I know. We can play the “If” game all day long, but I am trying to make a point here, and it is this: UDFA John Clay now has his chance on a national stage to show the teams that passed on him for 7 Rounds in The 2011 Draft that they were wrong. If he is effective in his chance to play, he could find himself with more Playing Time next season in Latrobe. And with a crowded Backfield taking shape (Mendy., Redman, Me-Mo, Dwyer, and B. Batch), this might be Clay’s best and only opportunity to show the Steelers what he can do.
All I know is that I’m rooting for the dude, because the Steelers need a punishing back like a Bettis or a Bam-Bam again. And if Clay can fill that void then I say give him every chance possible, Tomlin. Let’s just hope that Clay will respond to his chance and we in Steeler Nation can rejoice at the sight of a bruiser doing damage to the opposition.