Mendenhall, Redman help solidify backfield
Three running backs finished the 2011 season on injured reserve, two with torn knee ligaments and another with a broken foot. Those left healthy included two players who were undrafted, one a rookie and another who becomes an unrestricted free agent.
It sounds as if the Steelers could be in a heap of trouble at the position in 2012. However, they might be better off than they were this season.
Start with Isaac Redman. He's healthy and while he was not drafted, well, neither was Willie Parker and it took them a year to realize what they had with him. Parker made the team in 2004 and had 32 carries. He led them in '05 with 255 carries for 1,202 yards.
Redman is a completely different style of back and it has taken him a few more years but what he did this season should convince the Steelers that he is for real and should get more carries in '12.
Rashard Mendenhall ended the season with a torn ACL and will have surgery. Provided everything goes OK, he should be ready to play by August. He may no longer be the back offensive coordinator Bruce Arians described Sept. 8, three days before the season opener.
"That's our lead dog," Arians said that day. "Everybody wants to talk about the wideouts and everybody else. Our lead dog is Rashard. We're going into the game with Rashard as the lead dog and everybody else feeds off of him."
Mendenhall had 928 yards rushing and a 4.1-yard average. He carried 228 times, 96 fewer than the previous season.
Redman improved from 52 carries to 110 in one season, his yards from 247 to 479 (for a 4.4 average per carry).
He added 121 yards in the playoff at Denver, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.
Redman, whose playing time was more limited, also matched Mendenhall to lead the backs with 18 receptions apiece.
There's enough evidence the Steelers should have two lead dogs in 2012.
"I had a pretty good year," Redman said last week. "I just talked with our strength coaches, and I doubled my number of plays from last year. That's something good to build on. ... I want to work on my power. When you work on your power, it brings speed. That's the main thing I am going to try to work on this summer."
Certain statistics from this season can prove either of two theories regarding the Steelers running prowess: It could have been their best season running the ball in a decade, or it could have been among their worst.
The Steelers ran only 42.8 percent of the time, a rate that challenged for their all-time low of 42.2, set just two seasons earlier. They averaged 118.9 yards rushing a game the past season, a slight drop from 2010 but considerably better than the previous time they won the Super Bowl after a '08 season in which they averaged just 105.6 rushing per game.
Then there was the average per carry, which included seven attempts by wide receivers and 34 by quarterbacks: 4.4 yards, more than any Steelers ground game since the 4.8 posted in 2001.
They could lose Mewelde Moore, who is an unrestricted free agent, but they will pick up more.
Jonathan Dwyer, in his second season, and undrafted rookie John Clay showed some strong running ability in their brief appearances.
Dwyer led the team with his 76-yard run against Tennessee, when he finished the game with 107 yards, one of only three 100-yard games by Steelers backs in the regular season.
Dwyer (5-11, 229) and Clay (6-1, 248) have good size for the position. They will need to improve their blocking and receiving skills.
The other back did not play in 2011. Rookie Baron Batch was a hit early in training camp after the Steelers drafted him in the seventh round from Texas Tech. That ended during an Aug. 11 practice with a torn ACL. He will be a candidate as a third-down back in '12.
The Steelers do not rely on the run as they did through much of the past decade -- they averaged 173.4 yards a game in 2001, 154.0 in '04, 138.9 in '05 and 135.5 in '07. However, as their passing game has improved, they no longer need to run it as often.
They are more than adequate, and they should remain so in 2012.
NOTE -- Other than Mendenhall, these players have revealed they have had surgeries: Maurkice Pouncey (ankle), Doug Legursky (shoulder), Max Starks (ACL) -- 60 percent of their starting offensive line -- and cornerback Cortez Allen (shoulder). Hines Ward said he will have bone spurs removed from his right ankle.
First Published January 17, 2012 12:00 am