Mendenhall is likely to start at RB for Steelers
The Steelers own one advantage going in their biggest game of the season: The Ravens know who the Steelers' quarterback will be, but they're only guessing about the running back.
Then again, the Steelers' three running backs also aren't sure who will take that first carry from scrimmage Sunday night at Heinz Field.
The Steelers have gone into big games this late in the season without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But they almost always have a running back in place.
Now they're going with what coach Mike Tomlin said is the hot hand, starting three different backs — Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer — in the past five games.
Running backs coach Kirby Wilson said last week that Mendenhall would return when he was healthy, and he appears to be after missing four-plus games with an Achilles injury. Mendenhall reported being incident-free after practice Thursday.
Mendenhall has the best combined skills of the three — he possesses the get-to-the-edge explosiveness that Dwyer and Redman lack — but the downside is he figures to be rusty after getting only 19 carries all season.
Dwyer and Redman aren't. Dwyer (two games) and Redman (one) have three 100-yard games between them since Mendenhall went out. Dwyer averaged 95 yards in his past three games.
Still, Dwyer said, “If (Rashard) is back, he'll be the starter. We're excited for him to come back to play. He's working his way back and looking pretty good. We're excited we've got the band (of running backs) back together.”
Redman also expects Mendenhall to start.
“We got all the horses in the stable, and we're going to be able to have a fresh running back out there at all times,” Redman said. “That's going to be hard to deal with.”
Then again, the Ravens are having trouble dealing with most running games. They are 26th in rushing defense (132 yards per game), and they allowed at least 93 yards to an opposing back in four of their last five games.
No wonder Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he doesn't care who starts.
“It doesn't matter whether it's No. 7 (Roethlisberger) or No. 4 (Byron Leftwich) handing it off; it's still a power play. So that's not going to change that part of the game,” Pees said. “They're not going to come in and say, ‘OK, this week we are going to have all new.' … They are going to run the exact same offense.”
So drawing up the Steelers' game plan is easy, right? Run, run, run the ball at a Ray Lewis-free defense, wind the clock, keep the chains moving and keep the pressure off Leftwich, who is 0-6 as a starter since 2006.
“We want to try to take some of the burden off him, so he doesn't feel like he has to do too much out there,” Redman said. “If we run the ball at a high level, it definitely takes a lot off his shoulders.”
But the Ravens are also 26th in pass defense (258.2 yards), and they're missing two of their top three cornerbacks, Lardarius Webb (ACL) and Jimmy Smith (sports hernia). Nickel back Corey Graham — a 2011 Pro Bowl special teams player — will start at cornerback, and Chris Johnson, a former Raiders defensive back who was signed Tuesday, is expected to play.
Expect Leftwich to take a few shots downfield.
“We're going to try to find our best matchups all the time, run and pass,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “I wouldn't want to go through the whole game and not (test that secondary).”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.