Mike Tomlin believes in the two-back system. He said as much shortly after the Steelers hired him in 2007. Then, he went out and used Willie Parker, as promised at Tomlin's first midseason, until the wheels came off.
Parker carried 321 times in Tomlin's first season and led the NFL in rushing right up until he broke his leg in the second to last game and never was the same. By 2010, he was out of football, his rushing yardage totals nearly cut in half from 1,316 to 791 to 389 in the following seasons.
Tomlin might still believe in the two-back system, but that it might only occur when two backs he trusts can give him what Parker and his successor, Rashard Mendenhall, have.
Coincidentally, like Parker in his final productive season, Mendenhall carried precisely 321 times last regular season. That represented 77.5 percent of all the running backs' carries. The rest were sprinkled among Isaac Redman, Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer.
That will not change, barring an injury to Mendenhall.
Mendenhall is the horse, and, while Redman will get some short-yardage calls, and he and Moore will see some third-down action, the Steelers will give the ball to Mendenhall and hope the wheels don't fall off.
"I was taught that a long time ago, I never worry about a running back getting tired," said running backs coach Kirby Wilson, echoing a sentiment Tomlin made last season. "Usually in a ballgame, they'll take themselves out if they get exhausted. Over a long term in their careers that's never been an issue with me.
"That's what they are there for, to run the ball and carry the load and deliver for us. So, I've never been concerned with that and I never will be. That's their job."
You ride the horse. If you have two, the better, but Mendenhall is the Steelers horse, and they will lean on him as much in 2011 as they did in '10.
Mendenhall had 409 touches last season through the Super Bowl, and that included 23 pass receptions in the regular season and four in the postseason.
He started all 19 games and has not missed one since Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis' brutal hit resulted in a fractured shoulder in the second game of '08 and a premature end to Mendenhall's rookie season.
Mendenhall, only 24, could have more carries in his fourth season.
"He's in excellent shape," Wilson said. "He always takes care of his body. He's a little bit ahead of the curve because when you know the offense as well as he does, you're able to concentrate more on the things that you want to do personally better. I think he's going to have a great year."
If so, the mix behind him won't matter much, but, as they prepare for their first preseason game Friday against the Washington Redskins, the pecking order behind Mendenhall looks to be Redman, Moore and either Dwyer or rookie John Clay.
Early in training camp, that fourth spot looked to be reserved for Baron Batch, but two things have happened since: Wednesday, late in practice at Saint Vincent College, Batch was carted off the field with a knee injury that appears to be serious. Competition for the fourth running back position now apparently will come down to Dwyer and Clay.
Batch was not hit; he made a cut on the artificial turf field and went down. He had made a strong impression in his first two weeks.
The other turnaround has been made by Dwyer, who has worked with strength/conditioning coach Garrett Giamont to shed much of the extra weight he carried with him to Latrobe two weeks ago.
Redman was the Batch of 2009, a rookie running back hailing even more from nowheresville, undrafted after playing at Bowie State in Maryland. He made the practice squad as a rookie, then made the 53-man roster in '10 and surpassed Moore as a third-down back and in short-yardage situations. He could see similar action this season after rounding into a more polished, physically imposing back at 245 pounds, 15 more than his listed weight at the start of last season.
"He's improved every year since he's been here," Wilson said. "It's fun to watch him grow. He's a big, strong man, 245 pounds. He's solid in blitz protection, solid in running routes and catching the football. He's excellent in short yardage. He's a guy you don't hesitate to put in because you trust him."
Moore is a versatile veteran who helped save the '08 Super Bowl season by turning in two solid starts in place of the injured Parker, both victories.
Redman, Dwyer and Clay likely will get most of the work Friday in Washington. Come September, Mendenhall will get nearly all of it.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @EdBouchette. First Published August 11, 2011 4:00 AM