Mendenhall is key to Steelers' resurgent running game

September 28, 2010|By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley would enter the discussion of the player the Steelers could least afford to lose.

Here is another: Rashard Mendenhall.

The Steelers' ground game, floundering for two years to the point that it took a presidential edict to go looking for it, has returned in a big way, with Mendenhall blazing the trail. The halfback ranks fourth in the league with 332 rushing yards, and the Steelers are third in the NFL with an average of 150 per game.

They ranked 19th last season. They ranked 23rd the year before. They ranked lower only once in the past 40 years -- 31st in the disastrous Tommy Gun offense of 2003.

Steelers president Art Rooney saw enough that it prompted him to say, shortly after last season ended, "We need to figure out how to get better running the football."

And, one more Rooney statement:

"We have to get back to being able to run the football when we need to run the football, and being able to run more consistently than we have in the past season."

When Rooney made those comments Jan. 14, he had no idea he would be without his No. 1 quarterback for the first four games this season, making the ground game more critical to the Steelers' success during that period.

The running game Sunday in Tampa, Fla., worked just the way Rooney verbally drew it up. The Steelers not only ran for 201 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry, but they also ran it when they needed to. Last season, they could not run to save their lives — or victories — when they had to in the second half. It was part of the reason they blew five fourth-quarter leads in games that ended in losses.

With a 28-6 halftime lead in Tampa, the Steelers went into their turtle offense. Charlie Batch threw three passes in the second half, and the Steelers ran 20 times to run out the clock and coast to a 38-13 victory.

Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged the ground game's success in Tampa, but would not commit to it as the way to win.

"I was excited that it produced in the manner it did Sunday. Every week is different. We're trying to do the very best we can to win football games, and we acknowledge that week to week, that may change."

Who knows how things might change when Ben Roethlisberger returns for the fifth game? He became the first in team history to top 4,000 yards passing last season, and his return might unleash the passing game again.

With Mendenhall, the Steelers have another legitimate threat besides Roethlisberger's arm. He ran through safety Sean Lewis on the way to his 3-yard touchdown in the Tampa heat the way Jerome Bettis ran through the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher in the snow.

The danger for the Steelers is if they lose him. The pedigrees behind Mendenhall are not strong ones. Mewelde Moore has shown he can do the job in the short term, but he has never been a feature back. Undrafted Isaac Redman (Bowie State) is in his second season, and rookie Jonathan Dwyer, drafted in the sixth round, has not dressed for a game.

That did not stop Tomlin from continuing to run Mendenhall deep into the game Sunday, his last carry coming with fewer than seven minutes left and the Steelers holding a 38-6 lead.

It's not 18 games yet, but it is a long season, and, the way it is shaping up, Mendenhall has returned the Steelers' ground game to its historical effectiveness. They just cannot afford to lose him.

No surprise; Batch will start

In case there was doubt, Tomlin said Charlie Batch will make his second consecutive start at quarterback Sunday when the Steelers play the Ravens at Heinz Field.

Batch led the Steelers to the victory in Tampa against the Buccaneers, throwing three touchdown passes. He ran his record as a starter with the Steelers to 4-1.

Tomlin said Byron Leftwich is healthy enough to play and will resume his role as the only backup Sunday.

Nose tackle Chris Hoke, who sprained the MCL in his right knee near the end of the game against Tampa Bay, might be able to play this week, Tomlin said.

The coach listed four other injuries: guard Trai Essex ( ankle sprain), who missed the game in Tampa; reserve safety Will Allen (ankle sprain); backup defensive end Ziggy Hood (ankle sprain); and special teams ace Anthony Madison (hamstring).

Tomlin said he thought Essex might return and the other three should play. He would not commit, however, to returning Essex to right guard, where he started last season and in the first two games before his injury. Tomlin said he liked the way Doug Legursky played the position in Essex's absence.

"I thought he represented himself very well. I think that's one of the reasons Trai's feeling better."

Dixon remains for now

The Steelers have no plans to place quarterback Dennis Dixon, who had surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus Wednesday, on injured reserve this week. When Roethlisberger returns, however, they will have to make room for him on the 53-man roster and are not likely to keep four quarterbacks.

"They say from four to six weeks, but every time it's different," Tomlin said of the length of time Dixon is expected to miss. "We're hopeful he's going to get back to us quickly."

Putting him on injured reserve "depends on how games go," Tomlin said.

"I never look too far ahead in terms of some of those kinds of decisions. We've got to play a game this week. Injuries are a part of football. You never know. You just don't."

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