Haley happy with variety of running backs

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Offensive coordinator Todd Haley does not seem worried about beginning the regular season without running back Rashard Mendenhall, who is on the physically-unable-to-perform list while he recovers from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

In fact, Haley said he is "excited" about the group of running backs he has behind Mendenhall, including Isaac Redman, who will be the starter.

"I'm not just talking ... we got a wide range of body types and skill sets, and that's good," Haley said.

"You got some big, strong guys like [Redman], where you can hump it up in there when needed. But you also got some of the sports car-type bodies that offer some different weapons. It's a good mix, a good group of guys."

The latter reference was to rookie Chris Rainey, the team's fifth-round pick from Florida who is not very big (5 feet 8, 178 pounds) but makes up for his lack of size with 4.3 speed and elusive moves.

"He's going to be awesome," said center Maurkice Pouncey, who also played at Florida. "He's a smaller guy, but he's been dealing with that his whole life. We can use him like Darren Sproles."

The Steelers averaged 4.4 yards per rush in 2011, their best average since '01. But they stalled too many times in short yardage and at the goal line, one of the reasons they finished 21st in the league in scoring.

"That's the name of the game offensively, being able to get yards on the ground when the defense knows you're running wherever that falls in the game," Haley said. "Same goes with throwing. If you can be successful in those situations, you can be pretty good."

Hampton praises McLendon

The Steelers drafted nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu in the fourth round with the idea he eventually might replace five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton, who likely is in his final year with the team.

But Hampton, on the PUP list after having ACL surgery in late January, thinks the Steelers already had his replacement on the roster -- Steve McLendon.

"He's a beast man," Hampton said of McLendon, who is 6-4 and listed at 280 pounds but actually weights 325. "Everybody thinks he's a little dude -- he's not a little dude, he's a big, strong guy. He can be dominant, so I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do."

McLendon was an undrafted rookie in '09 who has been starting at nose tackle with Hampton on the sideline.

It has been a long road to that spot for McLendon, who was released in the final cut of training camp in '09 and spent the next two seasons being signed three times and cut three times by the Steelers.

But he played in 14 of 16 games last season and eventually passed longtime backup nose tackle Chris Hoke on the depth chart.

"He's definitely a good player," Hampton said. "He has a chance to be a really, really good player.

"I'm one of those who really wants to see what he can do, week in and week out, because he's progressed a whole lot. I just really want to see what he's going to do."

New officials struggle

Replacement officials were used for the first time at the afternoon practice, and not everything went smoothly.

After one of the officials unknowingly blew a kickoff drill dead because the ball went through the end zone, Coach Mike Tomlin screamed from the other end of the field, "Put your damn whistles away, we're working."

The NFL and their regular officials have not reached agreement on a new contract, forcing the league to use replacements.

New task for Timmons

Larry Foote has started at both inside linebacker positions in the Steelers defense, but Lawrence Timmons is getting his first taste of playing the "buck" linebacker -- the position James Farrior had manned since '02.

The Steelers flip-flopped Foote and Timmons this week because they want Timmons, who plays the "mack" position, to get comfortable calling defensive signals and setting the front seven.

"It's a flexibility issue in case injuries happen," Timmons said.. "I'm getting the calls and getting everyone set. I'm looking forward to getting it down. I'm practicing it now and trying to make the best of it."

Timmons was the team's leading tackler two years ago, but his production dropped last season when he started four games and played portions of three others at outside linebacker because of injuries.

"I'm always a guy willing to help the defense," said Timmons. "Wherever they need me, that's what I'm going to do."

Woodley due back tonight

Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley did not practice for the second day in a row, but Tomlin would not say if he was injured. All he said was Woodley would return to practice tonight at Latrobe's Memorial Stadium.


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.


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