On the Steelers: Mendenhall destined for same fate as Parker?
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall ran for 1,273 yards on 324 carries last season. Both were career highs.
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As promised, Mike Tomlin ran Willie Parker until his wheels came off and now it's Rashard Mendenhall's turn.
Parker was leading the league in rushing entering the 15th game of the 2007 season when his leg was broken. He finished with 1,316 yards and his career was finished 20 months later.
Parker carried 337 times in 2006 for 1,494 yards and 321 times in 2007, when he would have had another 40-50 carries had his injury not occurred.
In 2009, Mendenhall carried 242 times to Parker's 98. In 2010, Mendenhall carried 324 times for 1,257 yards; Isaac Redman was next with 52 carries.
Mendenhall is the Steelers' horse and Tomlin is going to ride him and he makes no excuses for it.
"You know, that's why you draft running backs, to hand them the ball," Tomlin said during an interview last week at the NFL meetings in New Orleans. "Wear and tear is part of the game, specifically at that position. You worry about it, but it doesn't dominate your thought. It's just part of the game."
The NFL moved to provide more protection for its second-stringers -- those on the two kickoff teams -- than it has for star running backs who regularly take many times more punishment slamming into 350-pound linemen from a running start.
They may want to make the game safer, but they're not stupid. Limit the number of carries a back can have in a game/season? That won't happen any time soon and Tomlin surely doesn't want to pioneer that effort.
Tomlin, when he was hired in 2006, said he preferred to split the carries between two backs, but that has not happened. His philosophy for using running backs has changed since the Steelers hired him.
"The reality is always very different than your vision" is how Tomlin explained it. "In most instances, regardless of what subject or element you're looking at, the reality is very different than your vision, and I imagine that's the case in all jobs."
He insisted that he has shared the duties at running back among Mendenhall, Redman and Mewelde Moore.
"I don't know that there's been a clear No. 2. We've had a short-yardage and goal-line specialist, it's been Isaac Redman and before that, it was Gary Russell. We've had a guy who has been third-down capable and distinguished himself in that area in three out of the four years I've been here, and that's been Mewelde Moore.
"We divvy up the labor. Maybe not ideally the way I envisioned it, but there's a lot about the reality of the job than the way you envision it when you get started."
If stats can be reality, then Redman and Moore were pretty much kept out of the picture running the ball -- they combined for just 85 carries last season. Moore did catch 26 passes, three more than Mendenhall. Redman caught only nine, although they included one of the most vital of the season, his 9-yard touchdown catch in Baltimore.
Tomlin also kept Mendenhall in the game near the goal line and he produced 13 of the Steelers' 15 touchdown runs in the regular season and four of their five in the postseason.
"Really, it was a function of Rashard delivering and having success," Tomlin said. "It's one of the many ways we motivated guys."
Mendenhall was a junior at Illinois when the Steelers drafted him on the first round in 2008. He turns 24 in June, and Tomlin believes he'll improve over the next few seasons.
"We're pleased with where he is, but we think he's still a guy in development. He was a 20-year-old, third-year junior when we drafted him. So we were attracted to the upside. That's borne itself out. He continues to improve, he's still a young guy, relatively speaking.
"We knew when we drafted him one of the things that made him attractive to us is that he was very young and had few habits, that we had an opportunity to be an integral part of his growth and development as a player. And he's upheld his end of the bargain to this point and we expect him to continue. I know he has the desire to continue.
"He's got some unique talents and we're going to try to build our run game around those talents."
Imagine how many carries Mendenhall might get once the Steelers succeed in building their run game around him?
"I ain't been around many backs who don't want [the football]," Tomlin said. "I think if you polled any back, they want the ball and they want it a lot."
Would Willie Parker's vote right now count?
Tomlin wants Mendenhall to take more of a leadership role on the team.
"You know, he's not the young guy in the huddle anymore. There are several men in the huddle with less experience than him and the responsibilities that come with that are going to be enjoyable to watch over the next couple years or so."
First Published March 27, 2011 12:00 am