Kovacevic: Steelers must spell Mendenhall
Flash forward to Baltimore on the 11th of September: Rashard Mendenhall bursts through a hole in the Steelers' line but is barreled backward by the Ravens' Ray Lewis. His ankle bends awkwardly. He is carted off the field, cringing in pain.
Mike Tomlin looks down his sideline and sends in ...
No easy answer, is there?
Well, the Steelers had better find one, sooner rather than later.
Mendenhall has been one part force, two parts workhorse the past two seasons, with 627 carries and 2,611 yards, including playoffs. That's the third-most carries in the NFL in that span. Yeah, he's 24 years young, tough, durable, and he holds onto the football more often than James Harrison thinks. But this is a grind not even Earl Campbell could sustain.
Not that anyone concerned will acknowledge it.
I asked Mendenhall about his workload yesterday at St. Vincent College, and he came back flatly: "That's part of the game, part of your job as a running back. I'm preparing to carry whatever load I'm given."
Kirby Wilson, the Steelers' running backs coach, shrugged it off, too: "He's fine. He's a young man. He's built for it, and we feel like he's a special runner. Why take him off the field?"
Where do I start?
In an era in which most teams have running back tandems — Baltimore, for instance, just added Ricky Williams to back up Ray Rice — Mendenhall has accounted for an alarming 62.7 percent of the Steelers' carries the past two seasons. Of the league's top 15 rushing teams last season, the Steelers, who ranked 10th, had the lowest-ranking No. 2 rusher in Isaac Redman with 247 yards.
Moreover, Mendenhall isn't exactly the tiptoeing type. His 1,273 yards last season ranked seventh in the league, but his average of 3.9 yards per carry was the 11th-lowest of the top 50 in total rushing yardage. And remember how the goal line was supposed to be Redman's specialty after his spectacular showing in last year's camp• Mendenhall was just too good down there and finished with 13 rushing touchdowns to Redman's zero.
The Steelers are going to run more than most seem to think. They did so 47.4 percent of the time last season, they've got uncertainty at wide receiver, and they now have run-blocking ace Willie Colon back at right tackle as part of an offense that loves to run to the right.
Somehow, someone else needs to get involved at running back.
But again, who?
Wilson answered "probably Mewelde Moore," and that's understandable to an extent: Moore, 29, is in his eighth season, he was Tomlin's choice for four starts in 2008 to replace injured Willie Parker, and he isn't far off when he calls himself "one of the best third-down backs in the game." But first and second down count, too. Moore is far from a feature back.
Baron Batch, the seventh-round draft pick, has been the buzz of camp, barreling through defenders as easily as he sprints around end. Kid looks like a keeper. But he's bound for special teams for now.
Of the rest of the backs, the only one who entered camp with a realistic chance, Jonathan Dwyer, has shown up out of shape and deserves to be among the first cuts.
So let's see more of Redman.
The pedigree looks suspect, I'll admit. He was an undrafted free agent two years ago out of Division II Bowie State, spent 2009 on the Steelers' practice squad, then made just 52 carries last season. But he's a bullish 230 pounds, he picks up blitzes and, even though he's just an average receiver, it's hard to forget that touchdown catch in Baltimore last season after Troy Polamalu's brilliant strip of Joe Flacco.
The Steelers at least sound open-minded about using Redman more.
"That's why we have him here," Wilson said. "Isaac is someone who's made exciting plays for us when he's been out there, someone who has another level. We think highly of him."
Redman is markedly more blunt on the subject.
"Rashard had a lot of carries, and a man's body can only take so much. Hopefully they'll send some of those my way," Redman said with a smile. "Hey, this has turned into a two-back league. We all know that. I'm trying to step up and make this a tandem."
It's a step worth taking.