Mendenhall's role diminishes as Steelers offense comes to pass


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Among Rashard Mendenhall's latest beliefs is teams who run the ball can still win in the pass-oriented NFL.

Never mind that most of the top teams in the league still believe the path to the Super Bowl is through the air.

Crazy, huh?

Not to Mendenhall, the Steelers' top running back.

"I still think that's the formula to win," Mendenhall said. "I feel like the successful teams, when you look at the Broncos and what they're doing and the Texans and teams like that, teams that are able to run the ball, they have balance on offense and it does nothing but help them. Plus it gives your defense a break."

The Steelers (8-3) are like most of the NFL's top teams: They have leaned heavily on the pass in 2011, more than they did last year.

And the person most affected is Mendenhall, who has seen his workload -- not to mention his impact on the offense -- diminish.

Heading into Sunday's 1 p.m. game against the Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) at Heinz Field, Mendenhall is well below the pace of last season when he set career highs for yards (1,273), carries (324) and touchdowns (13).

In the 10 games he has played, he has a team-high 574 yards on 153 carries, an average of 3.8 yards per attempt. That is nowhere close to the impact he had on the offense at a similar point in 2010.

Mendenhall had 811 yards on 202 carries, an average of 4 yards per carry, after 10 games last season. As the offense has become more pass-oriented, Mendenhall is averaging just 51 yards rushing per game in the past five games.

"For us, you kind of have to do what's called," Mendenhall said. "Our focus has become the passing game. For us, it's just executing when we can."

Mendenhall's big plays are down, too. Last year, Mendenhall had seven of his 11 runs of 20 yards or longer in the first 10 games. This season, he has only two runs of 20 yards or longer after 10 games, including none in the past five.

"I think it's more necessarily our running game," said Mendenhall, who is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in which he had a combined 566 carries. "When you work at it and concentrate on and focus on it, those plays come. When it's spotty like it has been, it's hard to create a play like that."

"The running backs probably would love to run the ball 60 times a game, but they understand that we have a lot of weapons," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "And I think the more that we can throw the ball it can open up the running game. And when we can run the ball it opens up the passing game. So, I think we've got a lot of unselfish guys in this room that just want to win football games."

The Steelers have won six of their past seven games, but there hasn't been a whole lot of help from the running game. Since rushing for a season-high 185 yards against the New England Patriots, they have averaged more than 4 yards rushing per carry in just one of their past five games.

In Kansas City, the Steelers had 108 yards on 28 carries and averaged 3.9 yards per attempt, despite runs of 16 yards by Mendenhall and 14 yards by Isaac Redman.

"The biggest disappointment for me was our rush per average; I didn't like our per-carry average," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "It has to pick up for us to be where we want to be. We have to run the ball closer to 4 [yards] per carry. It's not the number of carries, it's the quality of the carries. And when we want to run it, we have to run it better, I think."

The Steelers, who have attempted 387 passes compared to 290 runs, aren't the only team to de-emphasize the running game.

Of the 14 teams with records of 7-4 or better, only three -- San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders -- have attempted more running plays than passing plays. Those totals, though, do not take into account sacks, which do not count as attempted passes.

Even the Bengals, who wanted to return to a more run-oriented attack with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, have attempted 64 more passes (376) than runs (312).

Despite teams relying more on the pass, the total of rushing yards in the NFL (40,494) is up from last season (39,466) after 11 games -- an unexplainable oddity, given that only one of the 15 teams with losing records (Jacksonville) has run more than it has passed.

"The more you run, the more you wear the defense down," Mendenhall said. "The more you do it, the better chance you have of success."


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac . First Published December 3, 2011 5:00 AM


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