While 1st and 2nd Round Picks David DeCastro and Mike Adams have probably garnered the most headlines of the Steelers’ first year players, there is one other Rookie on the roster which might also contribute a fair amount to Pittsburgh’s success in 2012: Running Back/Return Man Chris Rainey. And it is Rainey’s unique skill set combined with Pittsburgh’s needs in specific areas which should lead to some opportunities for the former Florida Gator to make an impact sooner rather than later.
Rainey’s Importance on Offense
Before I discuss Rainey’s likely role within the Offense, let me state that I believe that the bruising Isaac Redman will assume a bulk of the load when it comes to the running game in 2012 and possibly beyond. The only Running Back with any significant experience, Redman will get every chance imaginable to prove himself with Rashard Mendenhall on the shelf for the first half of the season. Redman’s projected starting role aside, I still believe that there will be plenty of chances for Rainey to contribute to the Offensive attack this season.
While Rainey (5’9″ 175 lbs.) might not possess the frame to take a pounding like a Redman or a Jonathan Dwyer over 20 times per game, a weapon such as him can bring some special things to the table for Todd Haley and Co.. Rainey’s shiftiness, agility, decent hands, and 4.3 speed to burn makes Rainey a perfect weapon for Big Ben to have at his disposal on 3rd Downs and between the 40’s. And to me, the Steelers could find some serious use for Chris either lined up next to Ben Roethlisberger in the Shotgun, or used in a slotback role if Pittsburgh spreads the field with four or more Receivers.
Screen and Draw Game
In the event DeCastro is indeed “as good as advertised” and new Left Guard Willie Colon can somehow manage to stay on the field injury-free, Pittsburgh will have two athletic Guards at their disposal and excellent tools to succeed in the screen game. Putting the diminutive, yet cat-quick Rainey in space behind those two and the other Linemen with full heads of steam could really spell trouble for Pittsburgh’s opponents who might be focused more on the Steelers two Pro Bowl Wide Receivers (Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace), their two solid slot guys (Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery), or even their Pro Bowl Tight End (Heath Miller) if he is in the game. Plus, with Nickel or Dime personnel likely being employed by the Defense, Rainey would have space to create and make things happen when he gets to the second level.
The Steelers also might want to use Rainey on some draw plays if the Defense is a tad overaggressive on 3rd and 3-6 situations from their Shotgun formations. If the opposition is getting to quick up the field, a delay, or delay draw with Rainey might be just what the Offense needs to not only convert the 1st Down, but possibly hit a big play as well. Rainey was a solid option on the ground in Shotgun for the Gators over his career and gained 2,464 Yards Rushing, including 861 as a Senior. In the event that Rainey gets past that first wave of Defenders it could be trouble once he makes a cut up the field and hits top speed.
Slot Receiving and Slot Run Game
Rainey in empty 5-Wide sets as a slotback could also wreak some havoc if he is given the ball in space on short and quick hitting routes. There are few Corners and Safeties which can match Rainey speed-wise, and zero Linebackers which can do the same. Slants, hooks, and even a “Bruce Arians Bubble Screen Special” or two would give the Rookie speedster (69 Catches, 795 Yards, and 6 TD’s in college) a chance to use his skill-set in the most effective manner possible.
In addition to his work in the passing game, Rainey also could contribute a small amount to the running game if he finds himself lined up in the slot. It could be beneficial to use Rainey on some end-arounds or jet-sweeps, plays which would be similar to what he ran at Florida when he lined up on the Offensive side of the ball. Getting the Defense to over-pursue or at least making them aware on some fakes of Rainey’s ability to run these plays could be something the Offense might want to keep in mind. Ultimately, putting Rainey in the game on Offense would always be another thing the Defense has to account for when he is in the game, and matchup issues galore could be had by the skill-position players the Steelers Offense.
Rainey’s Importance in the Return Game
While Antonio Brown might want to continue his punt return duties this season, there is about a “snowball’s chance” in hell of that happening. At this point, Brown is too important to this Offense’s success to be relegated to putting himself in harm’s way. And in the event that Mike Wallace ends up sitting/underperforming for extended periods, Brown will have to assume the role of Roethlisberger’s #1 pass-catching target. Worrying aside, Brown’s current status should not harm the Steelers, because Rainey should be in line to at least assume the bulk if not all of punt return (and possibly kickoff return) duties this season. Rainey’s quickness and experience at Florida in the return game (689 Career Punt and Kick Return Yards) should come into play in this specific area. Any time a punt return can be set up for Rainey, and space can inevitably be created for him to make guys miss, good things should hopefully happen, and the Steelers will be able to take advantage of some nice field position if everything works out fine.
For those of you which did not read it, I actually mocked Rainey to Pittsburgh in the Final Mock Draft I constructed a few months back. I even made a post before the mock on why Rainey might be a candidate the Steelers would consider taking him. In both instances I described Rainey’s unique skill-set and why it would be of such value to a team like Pittsburgh which could use help on 3rd Downs and in the return game.
While Rainey will likely get the first crack at winning the 3rd Down Back and Punt Return jobs, his role is not quite set in stone. Baron Batch will be hungry to earn a roster spot and playing time at Running Back as well, and should push Rainey to get work on 3rd Downs and in Shotgun formations. As for the return duties, Undrafted Rookie Marquis Maze did a fine job at Alabama over the course of his career, and will be competing for reps with Rainey there as well.
My hope though is that Rainey can add his skill-set to this already high-powered and talented Offense, and can do so as early as this season. I personally would like to see Rainey possibly get somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 Offensive touches per game, get some work on 3rd Downs and in Shotgun formations when the field is spread, do a bit of work on the kickoff and punt coverage units, and also get a couple of chances to return kicks. But hey, we will just have to wait and see how the depth chart and the Offense sorts itself out over the next month or so and whether or not the team decides to use Rainey and how.
Let’s get excited “Steeler Nation!” Training Camp at the end of the month! Woo Hoo!
Readers, it’s time for you to chime in: Will Rainey make an impact this season? Which other Rookies (besides DeCastro, Adams, Rainey) do you see getting playing time this season?
Stats and Height/Weight Courtesy of: ESPN.com Player Page