The Steelers are very un-Steeler like when it comes to running the football these days, but, perhaps, help is on the way. Rashard Mendenhall is expected to make his debut Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field.
Mendenhall, who posted two 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the past three years, missed the first three games of the regular season while recovering from mid-January ACL surgery, and, without him, the Steelers running game has struggled.
That running game is ranked 30th among 32 NFL teams. Mendenhall likely will bring a little more explosiveness to the position than Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer.
"I'm really just waiting on my opportunity," Mendenhall said. "I just want to continue to work and, as we as an offense sort of form ourselves and bring the pieces together, I want to bring whatever piece I bring.
"But we struggled as a running game early in the season last year, and that's part of it. We just want to continue to grow and, as long as we get better and not worse, that's what we want to do. But we see it from a different light -- we see how close we are [to breaking out] so we just will keep working."
The sentiment that the Steelers running game is "close" rings true with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, too.
And yet, through three games the Steelers have rushed for a total of 195 yards and are averaging 65 yards on the ground per game and 2.6 yards per carry.
In their 34-31 loss against Oakland last Sunday, the Steelers ran for 54 yards on 20 carries (2.7 per carry). Their longest run was 8 yards, and that was a scramble by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Haley, however, is not ready to panic. He said the running game has done well in some key situations, even though statistically it has not fared well overall. He also said the running game has taken a back seat to the passing game for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that Roethlisberger and the receivers have played well.
"I hope [Mendenhall's return] helps us a bunch," Haley said. "I think, the last game, though, statistically you'd look at it and say we are not running the ball, but we went into that game knowing what kind of a game it would be, that they were going to have a hard time stopping us throwing the football so it was important that we ran efficiently.
"And, when you broke that game down looking at third-and-1, second-and-1, fourth-and-1, we converted the first downs. Now the average isn't what you'd like to see, you'd like to see bigger runs, but they were efficient.
"But to get another difference-maker back will, hopefully, will be a big deal for us."
Players were careful not to say that Mendenhall was an upgrade over Redman and Dwyer but they acknowledged that Mendenhall's big-play ability is an element the offense has lacked.
"Getting [Mendenhall] back is really going to help us," said offensive lineman Doug Legursky. "Not that the other two backs haven't done a good job because they have, but Rashard's explosion, his speed and his experience will really just add to it and make us that much better. He is one of those guys who is able to press the hole and he is also just speed around the edge where nobody is going to catch him.
"That makes him a dangerous piece to our offense, and we're excited about getting him back."
Tight end Heath Miller added "our running game is a work in progress, and any time you add a player of Rashard's caliber and experience into the team it is certainly a plus, but we have to be careful to say one guy is going to come and magically the whole running game is going to start working. It takes 11, and we all have to do our part."
Redman, the leading rusher with 72 yards in 32 carries, knows Mendenhall will help the ground game because his skills are different, but he also agrees with Haley that the running backs haven't had a lot of opportunities to run the ball.
He also knows that having Mendenhall means he likely will return to a backup role and Dwyer likely will be squeezed out of the mix.
"Last week, we didn't run the ball very much, but, when we were running, we were running the ball very well," said Redman. "We didn't have as many runs as we like, but [the Raiders] couldn't stop the pass. I wish we could have run the ball a little more in that game because I felt like we were just getting going.
"[Mendenhall] will come in and be the feature guy, and that keeps me on the sidelines and we will come in to spell him. I think Rashard has that gifted ability to make those quick cuts and get to the outside and have those big, long, breakaway runs."
Mendenhall said the repaired knee feels good, and he believes he has most of his speed and cutting ability back. But he is anxious to get on the field in a game and see exactly where he stands.
He said his biggest adjustment will be settling in to the new offense under Haley and, perhaps, getting a feel for some of the new offensive starters.
That doesn't make him any different than his teammates.
"A lot of times it may be perceived as struggling, but it is not necessarily the case and we may see it on the inside as something different, and we want to grow with it," Mendenhall said.
"It is a different offense, and we have some different guys and we're just trying to figure out how to put it all together."
Help is on the way
Rashard Mendenhall's return to the lineup could be a huge boost to a Steelers running game that has struggled to start the season. Through three games, the Steelers have rushed for a total of 195 yards and are averaging 65 yards on the ground per game. That ranks third worst in the NFL through Week 3.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @paulzeise. First Published October 1, 2012 4:00 AM