In a recent article by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Isaac Redman talked about the Steelers’ Offense, and some of the different things to look for and expect this season from the unit under new Coordinator Todd Haley. While there were quite a bit of interesting things discussed, the part of the article which got me particularly excited was when it was alluded to in the first paragraph that the Running Backs would likely be utilized more often in the Steelers’ Passing Game in Haley’s new system. To me, if the decision to bolster the passing game with the Backs indeed true, I believe that it would be in the Steelers’ best interest to do so. Thus, I thought that today I would explain my thoughts on why using the Backs more in the passing game would be such a solid move for the Steelers in 2012 and beyond.
Which Backs Can Help and How They Can Succeed:
What many in the national media might not be aware of right now, is the fact that Pittsburgh’s Backs can actually do positive things in the passing game. Sure, none of Pittsburgh’s Backs can be compared to Marshall Faulk as a pass receiver in his prime, but there are four guys on the Steelers’ roster right now which can do some diverse and positive things in the passing game for the team.
The Back that I (and I am sure that most of you fans) am most interested in seeing work in the passing game is the Rookie speedster Chris Rainey. The thought of putting Rainey on the field in the slot or even in the backfield in a 3/4 Wide, 1 Back set would drive Defensive Coordinators nuts. With likely Wallace, Brown, Sanders (or Heath if they go Tight there), and Rainey on the field in addition to a Running Back, the possibilities are endless. Five talented guys will be eligible targets for Ben to throw to, and if the Line is as revamped as it should be, the Steelers could pick teams apart like they did the Patriots last season. The Steelers would have three burners on the field in Wallace, Brown, and Rainey, and if Defenses have to account for them the inside Receivers and/or other Backs will be open all day long. These mathcups could set up gaping holes which the Defense will have to respect, and with their Dime personnel on the field, a guy like Redman or could bowl through 5 men in the box at a time when they respect the passing game.
Rainey had plenty of experience as a pass-catcher in college at Florida, and is a player that could favorably be compared to Percy Harvin due to their similar build, similar skill-sets, and the fact that both are former Gator players. As a Running Back, Rainey not only did a fine job toting the rock for Florida (861 Yards Rushing on 171 Attempts during the 2011 season), but he also got some extensive work as a pass-catcher. During his final three seasons in college, Rainey caught 66 passes for 758 Yards and 6 Touchdowns, including 31 in his final campaign. If the Steelers can get Rainey in space, or find ways to get him 5-7 touches per game (maybe 1-3 in the air), “splash plays” could follow because of his speed and quickness.
As interesting as it will be to see how Rainey fits into the passing game, one player that we should not sleep on is Isaac Redman. And in certain situations, Redman could be a valuable weapon as a pass-catcher. The situations I am thinking of are: using Redman in the outer part of the Red Zone (between the 10-20 Yard Line), if he is matched up against a Linebacker, and in the screen game.
When a guy like Redman gets to the 2nd Level of a Defense with the ball in his hands, it is all over for the smaller guys. Granted, most Defensive Backs could catch him from behind speed-wise, but there is no way they want any part of him from a head on perspective. I harken back to that 2010 thriller in Baltimore where Redman caught that short pass at the 5 Yard Line and rumbled into the End Zone for the go ahead score. The Defense was spread out, and although they had to protect such a short space, Redman got open, and just would not be denied.
Imagine the Offense doing something like that with him once or a couple times per game. And Redman would likely be open too, because of all the other personnel the opposition must account for when the Steelers decide to throw the ball. The same success could also be had in screen game as well, because Pittsburgh’s Offensive Line is now revamped. Redman has a decent pair of hands (27 Catches over two seasons), and with more extensive work, he could do some serious damage if he gets to the second level of a Defense with blockers in front.
Rashard Mendenhall will be a bit of a mystery this season because it is not known: a) when he will be returning (i.e.: Week 1? Week 6? Week: 8?), and b) how close to 100% he will be if/when he does return. Still, Mendenhall has done a nice job for the Steelers as a pass-catcher over his career, and could be counted on more this season to help in said department. During the three seasons Mendenhall has started, he has caught 66 passes for 582 Yards, yet has only 1 Touchdown in the stats ledger. In terms of his ability to catch the ball and turn upfield, Mendenhall is a viable option in the passing game, and in my personal opinion, I feel that Mendenhall was very under-utilized in Arians’ Offense, and his total Catches dipped as well (25 to 23 to 18) during the last three seasons.
I would like to see Mendenhall (as well as Redman) used in the screen-game or even just as a regular pass catcher down in the Red Zone, a place where the Steelers could take advantage of play-action, and get Mendenhall matched up on some Linebackers and slower players. If the Line is indeed improved, Mendenhall will not be subject to as many hits, and most importantly will not be forced to tip-toe at times when no holes are there. Getting Mendenhall in some backfield sets with Redman in the opponent’s territory could also create some matchup issues, and both could be pass catching options which must be accounted for as well.
Projecting how well Mendenhall will do however will of course depend on how his knee holds up, and how much the Steelers elect to use him this season. 2012 will be Mendenhall’s contract season, and at whatever point he does return, he will be performing his tail off for his next job. With that in mind, Mendenhall could turn out to be a solid contributor for the Steelers in 2012, and he should be able to help in the passing game when/if his number is called.
Baron Batch is a bit of a “Wild-Card” in this mix, and to make the roster in general because of the fact that Rainey was drafted and the position could be a bit crowded. Nevertheless, if Batch makes the team, he could be a very valuable asset in the passing game, especially on 3rd Downs. Batch has received extensive work as a pass catcher because of his time spent at Texas Tech and in their pass-happy Offensive system and scheme. During his last three seasons in Lubbock, Batch caught 134 balls (career-high 57 in 2009) for 1,070 Yards, and 5 Touchdowns, and proved himself to be a solid receiving threat from the Running Back position.
Batch does not possess the break-away speed or shiftiness of a player like Chris Rainey, and he will have to fight back from the knee injury suffered during Training Camp last season. However, I could see Baron as a Mewelde Moore type of player that can help out on Special Teams, and give the team a boost on 3rd Downs in specific situations if he is needed. The competition for the final Running Back spots will be tough, and Batch will definitely have to earn his way onto the roster. Yet if Batch proves that he can be a Special Teams threat that the team cannot do without, he could see some snaps on Offense and get some touches for Pittsburgh this season, because he has a viable skill-set that can help the team.
While this collection of Backs might not be considered “elite” pass receiving weapons, getting them the ball and at least making them more of threats through the air can only help Big Ben and the rest of the Offense. Having a litany of options at Ben’s disposal will force opposing Defenses to think twice before they determine which of the Steelers’ Wide Receivers or Heath Miller to take away. As I alluded to above, each of these players can help in different ways as pass receivers, and each can bring something unique to the Offense as a whole. The more reliable places which Ben can go with the football when he drops back, the better, and with an improved Offensive Line, we could see a real different Offense this season. All I know is that I am excited at the prospect of the Backs being used more in the passing game, and it could really benefit this Offense in the present, and in the long run as well.
Chime in readers. Do you think the Backs can help in the passing game? Which Backs could have the best seasons? Let me know.
Statistics Courtesy of: ESPN.com Steelers Page