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Steelers position-by-position review: running backs

February 23, 2012 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

This is part 6 in our position-by-position review of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

If you haven’t read Part 1 (offensive tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 2 (guards), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 3 (centers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 4 (tight ends), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 5 (wide receivers), click here.

The next position that we’re going to review is the running backs.  The Steelers focused so much on the passing game under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, that it was easy to forget that we had running backs.  But the Steelers do have running backs, and they’re led by…..

Rashard Mendenhall

Mendenhall has carried the majority of the Steelers rushing load since becoming a starter in 2009.  He’s a very dependable runner who has a good combination, of power and speed, as well as an ability to catch the ball.

It’s difficult to evaluate Mendenhall’s performance, because he’s run behind a weak offensive line for the last several seasons.  But one thing was very clear in 2011.  Mendenhall’s carries dropped significantly.  He had almost 100 fewer carries this year than he did in 2010.  So his total yards dropped significantly, even though his average yards per carry was actually up.

Mendenhall tore his ACL in the regular season finale, and is likely to miss the beginning of the 2012 season due to the injury.  ACL injuries like Mendenhall’s typically take about 1 year to recover from.  So the Steelers are assuming that Mendenhall will be out until at least December.  But that’s an optimistic forecast.  Some have hypothesized that Mendenhall might miss the entire season.

So far, the Steelers have said that Mendenhall will likely start of the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.  They’ll monitor his progress and make more definitive decisions when the time comes.

Isaac Redman

Fortunately for the Steelers, they have Isaac Redman.  Redman has been Mendenhall’s backup for the past two seasons.  He’s actually averaged more yards per carry than Mendenhall during both of those seasons.  That’s particularly impressive because Redman was primarily used as a short yardage back.

After Mendenhall was injured in the regular season finale, Redman entered the game and gained 92 yards on 19 carries.  Then in the playoff game against the Denver Broncos, Redman started and gained 121 yards on 17 carries.  That’s 4.8 and 7.1 yards per carry respectively.  Both were higher than Mendenhall’s season average.

Redman doesn’t have Mendenhall’s speed, and so he’s not much of a threat to break a big run to the outside.  However, Redman is probably more effective than Mendenhall at running between the tackles.

Jonathan Dwyer

Jonathan Dwyer is a bit of an enigma.  He came to training camp fat and out of shape and quickly found himself in  head coach Mike Tomlin’s doghouse.

I find it astounding that a young player who is trying to secure a place on an NFL roster would arrive out of shape.  Maybe it’s just me, but that makes me question Dwyer on many levels.

Dwyer doesn’t have much actual NFL experience for us to evaluate.  However, he did have that 107 yard performance against the Tennessee Titans.  It’s impossible to know whether that was a fluke or a sign of things to come.

Mewelde Moore

Mewelde Moore was a non-factor this season.  If it weren’t for Rashard Mendenhall’s injury, I would probably be predicting that Moore’s time with the Steelers was over.  But Mendenhall’s injury changes everything.

Isaac Redman would be the Steelers’ only experienced running back if Moore were not brought back.  That’s probably too great a risk for the team to take.

Mewelde Moore has experience within the Steelers’ system, and he’s proven that he can produce when called upon.  He may not have the talent or potential that some of the Steelers’ younger running backs have.  But without Mendenhall, proven dependability is far more important than potential.

Baron Batch

Baron Batch was lighting it up last year during training camp and the preseason.  He was making both fans and coaches take notice of his abilities.  Most were convinced that he was going to replace Mewelde Moore on the roster.  And then he tore his ACL, and everything came to a screeching halt.

I hope to see Batch return next year and pick up right where he left off.  If he does, it will be a major bonus for the Steelers.  But you never can tell how players will recover from ACL injuries.  So we’ll all just have to wait and see what happens.

John Clay

John Clay was an undrafted rookie free agent that the Steelers signed to the practice squad last year.  At 6’1″ and 248 lbs., he’s a big, physical running back.

Clay was actually activated when Curtis Brown was placed on the injured reserve list.  But he got very little action, so it’s too soon to give him a meaningful evaluation.

With all of the uncertainty at running back, it would be easy to say that the Steelers should take a running back in this year’s draft.  However, I actually don’t think they should.

I believe that Mendenhall is going to recover from his injury.  But more importantly, I think that they have quite a bit of potential among their young running backs.  Mendenhall’s injury may force the team to use some of the youngsters sooner than they normally would.  That should help them develop faster than they would otherwise.  And it also should show the Steelers that they have a few keepers among their young backs.

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6 Comments to “Steelers position-by-position review: running backs”

  1. Dan Reisner says:

    I think we also need to consider our back’s ability to catch passes and pass block. Mendy and Red both proved themselves in that department, as well as Mewelde. If our young backs are going to get significant playing time, they will need to demonstrate reliability in these areas, particularly blocking. Also, given the lack of speed we may need to find more ways to get the ball quickly to speed guys Brown and Wally, to use them like backs. I agree we should have enough backs for a healthy competition in camp even without Mendy and should be more concerned about building up depth at nose tackle, linebacker, tightend, guard and even receiver if we lose Hines and Cotch.

  2. I agree with both of you - the depth we have at HB will do. We’ll get to keep an “extra” HB until Delicious (Mendenhall) gets back, so the competition at HB will continue until week 6, when the PUP expires.

    But @Admin you forgot one aspect of running backs. There is this position, I believe it’s called fullback. The Steelers used to have one PA (pre-Arians). Do you think the position will be resurrected? And will the ghost of Arians haunt the Steelers if it does?

  3. To Jim’s point - I think we have fallen in love with saving a roster spot with DJ at H-Back. Subtract him and we have to add a FB AND a TE to the roster probably at the expense of a WR. So, an OC would have to be totally commited to a different system to do that. Personally, I think DJ is a compromise and not great at anything- so IMO that’s a negative. This decision (if we do anything differently) will impact how many RB’s we keep. If Moore is not signed & 34 is on the PUP list - Active Roster will include: Redman, Clay or Dwyer and Batch (plus DJ.)
    Like others, I believe RB is not a priority in the draft- we have considerable talent/potential that we have to assess on our own roster. I would not be opposed to us bringing in a couple undrafted FA that are of the Dexter McCluster mold-they could add another dimension in our situational offense. Obviously any of these guys would have to make the team primarily as a ST guy.

  4. I’m going to have to go against the group on this one. I am actually not a supporter of going back to using a fullback. fullbacks are analogous to brontosaurus in the NFL; they’re practically extinct. More importantly, few college programs use them either, so it’s getting harder to find them in the draft.

    As more college programs go to spread offenses with 3-5 wide receivers, it is going to make wide receivers and cornerbacks much easier to find in the draft, and fullbacks and traditional tight ends far more difficult to find.

    But I do agree that David Johnson can definitely be upgraded.

  5. Admin-

    I’m not saying the FB is on the field all the time, but more situationally. The Packers have John Khun. Ring a bell? Sure he was with the Steelers in 2006. He has few carries/yards, but is used in certain formations.

    The end result though is probably similar to having an H-back, so it may not matter really. Keep DJ or upgrade to another TE or FB (whoever they find who is better) and it all works out the same.

    And to your other point, yes I am usually surprised when they throw it to DJ.

  6. Pittsburgh has many more “needs” then a position that is 3 or 4 deep and has some talent. Running backs these days are a dime a dozen. If you see one on the board in the 6th or 7th and he has some ability, why not. But no way should they spend a high pick on a running back. As for the FB, David Johnson does a pretty good job in my opinion.


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