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Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Situation

Posted By Rob Stroup On Jul 22 2012 @ 8:57 pm In Pittsburgh Steelers | No Comments

How many of you cringed when Rashard Mendenhall went down with an obvious knee injury in what proved to be a meaningless season finale against the rival Cleveland Browns?  It turned out to be an ACL tear, which as most football fans know, requires surgery and 8-12 months of rehabilitation before a player can return.  Mendenhall is pushing to make his return some time this season, perhaps as early as October or November.

I think it puts the Steelers in an interesting predicament for the 2012-13 season.  The more intriguing question becomes what to do beyond this season.

Rashard Mendenhall has a pedigree of a strong runner, who can do it all – run for power, with speed, block, and catch the ball out of the backfield.  He was the fourth running back taken in the 2008 draft (23rd overall).  After breaking his scapula (thanks to Ray Lewis) in limited action as a rookie, Mendenhall initially served as the backup to veteran Willie Parker.  Rashard even spent a game on the sidelines because Mike Tomlin said that he “wasn’t on the details” during the week.  Following that week in Cincinnati, the coaching staff showed that their trust in him had grown by his increased workload.  Mendenhall eventually succeeded Parker as the starter in 2009 and ran for 1,108 yards.  Since 2009, Mendenhall has been one of the few RBs in the NFL who consistently run on all three downs and in all game situations.  He has quick feet (some refer to them as “happy” feet because Mendenhall doesn’t always immediately hit the hole…when there is one).  His patented move is a 360 spin when he’s about to encounter contact.  A lot of people (myself included) express concern that he will unnecessarily expose the ball to an unseen defender, which will cause him to fumble.  But, he has had a pretty good track record of keeping the ball off the ground.

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Rashard Mendenhall looks to bounce back from his ACL injury in January

Fans of the black and gold remember Isaac Redman’s sturdy, pinch-hitting performance in the playoff loss at Denver.  His stat line was impressive: 17 carries for 121 yards.  Redman has a knack for getting the tough yards.  He has done so throughout his career, one that started as an undrafted rookie from Bowie State (MD).  In his first training camp (in 2009), he earned the nickname “Red Zone” for his ability to excel during goal line drills.  While he didn’t quite do enough to impress the coaches to make the team right away, he’s earned his stripes.  Redman has been an adequate second option to Mendenhall for the past two seasons.  Ike does not have electric speed, but what he lacks in quickness, he makes up for with determination and will power.  When Redman gets into the open field, he tends to make one move where he plants, changes directions slightly, then charges forward.  This move is amazingly effective.  But, the lingering question is – “Is Redman a feature back?”

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Will we see more of Isaac Redman getting into the secondary this season?

Jonathan Dwyer came to Pittsburgh two seasons ago.  He had impressive statistics while being the “fullback” at Georgia Tech.  He was part of a wishbone offense that ran all over teams using deception.  So, many scouts had questions whether his abilities would translate at the pro level.  He hasn’t had much of a chance in Pittsburgh.  Last season, he made a poor impression when he showed up overweight at training camp.  It took him a while to work back into form, but he did get back in the good graces to the point where he got in a few games and ripped off a stellar 76-yard run from scrimmage.  His skills don’t overwhelm anyone, but he has the potential to be a serviceable back who splits time with other ballcarriers.

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Jonathan Dwyer takes off through a massive hole to get 76 yards last year against the Titans

John Clay is a big back that the Steelers picked up as an undrafted free agent in 2011.  He was a power back at the University of Wisconsin, who racked up the yards on tough carries.  Clay is a bruiser who was pressed into service (off the practice squad) late in the season due to other RB injuries.  The most apt comparison I could make about John Clay is a poor man’s Ron Dayne.  Obviously, they have the Wisconsin background in common, as well as being power backs.

A guy that Pittsburgh coaches were really excited about last year was Texas Tech first year man, Baron Batch.  He is a shifty runner who has rapid accelerations and cutting ability.  Unfortunately, before his career could begin, Batch tore his ACL during practice.  He may have taken Mewelde Moore’s roster spot and served in his role as an occasional third down back with receiving ability last year had he not gotten injured.

The Steelers drafted diminutive Chris Rainey this past season in the 5th round out of Florida.  He is an all-purpose jack-of-all-trades kind of player.  He runs, catches passes, and astoundingly, blocked four kicks (that’s astounding because he is 5’9″)!  His fellow teammates thought so highly of his play that he was named team MVP.

I expect that the Steelers will ride the “hot hand” until Mendenhall returns, using Ike Redman as the primary option, but having three capable back-ups (Dwyer, Batch, and Rainey) ready to play depending on the game situation / personnel package desired by Coach Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.  Don’t be surprised if John Clay remains a practice squad option.  Redman can carry the ball in any position on the field, but could be given a blow by Dwyer in short yardage situations if necessary.  Also, Batch and Rainey may provide some much-needed quickness for formations that would have been a challenge as recently as last year.

Rashard Mendenhall’s contract expires at the end of the 2012-13 season, which begs the question – are the Steelers willing to invest their future on a powerful, dependable running back who is only 25 years old?  There is a decent stable of RBs chomping at the bit for their opportunity.  Is he worth a big money contract before next offseason?  Based upon his performance and the expectation that the offensive line will be significantly improved over the next several seasons, I think the Steelers should attempt to sign him to a three or four-year deal.  Rashard deserves the chance to run behind guys who can open some holes for him, instead of forcing him to dance while trying to make something out of nothing.

Training camp opens Wednesday, July 25, at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.

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Ahh...at least - you know it's football season when black and gold jerseys arrive at Chuck Noll Field (at Saint Vincent College).

If you ever have a desired topic for this blog, feel free to post comments and I’ll be happy to consider it.

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