Steelers should wait to hand off starting job
October, 12, 2011
By Jamison Hensley | ESPN.com
Troy Taormina/US PresswireSteelers running back Rashard Mendenhall has struggled to get on track this season.Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Rashard Mendenhall will return to practice this week, but he declined to answer whether the running back will start Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"We expect him to participate this week," Tomlin said at Tuesday's news conference, "and we will see where that participation leads us."
That's not a surprise. That's just being smart. This isn't an endorsement to bench Mendenhall after he sat out last Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. Still, you can't simply go back to handing the ball off to him 20 times a game and act like backups Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer didn't fight for every yard in his absence.
This should be the Steelers' game plan going forward: Stick with the hot running back. Tomlin should tell the running backs that he's not going to decide which one gets the most carries in a game. The running backs will determine that by the way they practice and by the way they play in games. It could be Mendenhall one game, or it could be Redman for one half.
The reason there is a debate about the starting running back job stems from third-down back Mewelde Moore's ankle injury and Mendenhall's slow start. Mendenhall's paltry numbers -- 43.2 yards rushing per game and 3.0 yards per carry -- are more a reflection of poor blocking by the offensive line than his running skills.
Mendenhall remains the most talented running back on the roster, but Redman and Dwyer are the hungrier backs on the team. Too often, Mendenhall would see no lane in between the tackles and bounce to the outside. He is dangerous when he has room. He is sometimes pedestrian when there's not.
In Sunday's 38-17 win over the Titans, Redman proved his toughness and Dwyer showed his breakaway skills. Dwyer ran 11 times for 107 yards, 76 of which came on one exhilarating dash. Redman pounded his way for 49 yards on 15 carries.
Some would argue that the blocking was much better Sunday than it had been for Mendenhall. Others would say Redman and Dwyer were more aggressive in attacking the line of scrimmage.
Pittsburgh's running back situation is unlike the others around the AFC North, where the Ravens have Ray Rice, the Browns have Peyton Hillis and the Bengals have Cedric Benson.
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesJonathan Dwyer rushed for 107 yards in his first significant action of the season.
(As a disclaimer, I don't have either Redman or Dwyer on my fantasy team, although I should check the waiver wire when I'm done here).
Redman, who went undrafted out of Bowie State in 2009, never carried the ball more than 10 times in an NFL game before Sunday because of the team's commitment to Mendenhall and Redman's problem with keeping in shape.
While his production wasn't overly impressive Sunday (3.3 yards per carry), his running style certainly was. Redman drove his 6-foot, 230-pound frame into the line and kept his legs churning for extra yards.
The difference between Redman and Mendenhall is their physical running. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Redman averages 2.6 yards after first contact (seventh-best in the NFL) while Mendenhall gets 1.1 YAC.
"I thought he did a nice job, but that is kind of what we expected," Tomlin said of Redman. "Isaac is not an unknown commodity in terms of what he is capable of doing with the ball in his hands ... so we were pleased but not surprised."
Dwyer, a sixth-round draft pick by the Steelers in 2010, was inactive for the first four games of the season and entered Sundays' game with 28 career rushing yards. His first run was a 76-yarder, which was the longest by a Steeler since Willie Parker ran the same distance five years ago.
Pittsburgh's offensive line -- right tackle Marcus Gilbert drove defenders inside and left guard Doug Legursky sealed the other side by pulling to the right -- opened a hole big enough for a bus. Well, a hole big enough for a couple of Jerome Bettis' to fit through.
Nevertheless, the run was effective because there was no hesitation from Dwyer. He ran full speed into the lane and sparked the Steelers' third touchdown drive of the game.
"Since Jonathan has been here, I think he has always made it very evident that running the football is something that he does well," Tomlin said. "But we are more pleased with some of the other things that he did in the game and other things that come with being a professional running back. He made two tackles on kick coverage units. He is growing in all areas, and that is what is going to be required for him to continue to move forward and retain his helmet as some of those guys who are injured get healthy."
Perhaps the Steelers will get back a more motivated Mendenhall. He suited up as the emergency running back because of a hamstring injury, and he watched two backup running backs combine for 156 yards against the NFL's stingiest defense in the Titans.
In fairness, one solid game by backups shouldn't wipe away Mendenhall's successful track record with Pittsburgh. The Steelers' first-round draft pick in 2008, he ran for 2,381 yards and 20 touchdowns the past two seasons after his rookie season abruptly ended with a fractured shoulder.
But Pittsburgh has to do what's right for the team now. At this point, Tomlin doesn't need to make a decision. He can put that ball in the hands of his running backs.