On the Steelers: Mendenhall sparks running game
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Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley would enter the discussions as the player the Steelers could least afford to lose.
Here is another: Rashard Mendenhall.
The Steelers' ground game, floundering for two years to the point that it took a presidential edict to go looking for it, has returned in a big way with Mendenhall blazing the trail. The halfback ranks fourth in the league with 332 yards rushing, and the Steelers are third in the NFL with an average of 150 per game.
They ranked 19th last season. They ranked 23rd the year before. They ranked lower only once in the past 40 years -- 31st in the disastrous Tommy Gun offense of 2003.
Steelers president Art Rooney saw enough that it prompted him to say, shortly after last season ended, that "We need to figure out how to get better running the football."
And, one more Rooney statement:
"We have to get back to being able to run the football when we need to run the football, and being able to run more consistently than we have in the past season."
When Rooney made those comments Jan. 14, he had no idea he would be without his No. 1 quarterback for the first four games this season, making the ground game more critical to the Steelers' success during that period.
The ground game Sunday in Tampa worked just the way Rooney verbally drew it up. The Steelers not only ran for 201 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry, they ran it when they needed to. Last season, they could not run to save their lives -- or victories -- when they had to in the second half. It was part of the reason they blew five fourth-quarter leads in games that ended in losses for them.
With a 28-6 halftime lead in Tampa, the Steelers went into their turtle offense. Charlie Batch threw three passes in the second half, and the Steelers ran 20 times to run out the clock and coast to a 38-13 victory.
Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged the ground game's success in Tampa, but would not commit to it as the way to win.
"I was excited that it produced in the manner it did Sunday. Every week is different. We're trying to do the very best we can to win football games and we acknowledge that week to week that may change."
Who knows how things might change when Ben Roethlisberger returns for the fifth game. He became the first in team history to top 4,000 yards passing last season, and his return might unleash the passing game again.
With Mendenhall, the Steelers have another legitimate threat besides Roethlisberger's arm. He ran through safety Sean Lewis on the way to his 3-yard touchdown in the Tampa heat the way Jerome Bettis ran through Chicago's Brian Urlacher in the snow.
The danger for the Steelers is if they lose him. The pedigrees behind Mendenhall are not strong ones. Mewelde Moore has shown he can do the job in the short term, but has never been a feature back. Undrafted Isaac Redman is in his second season, and rookie Jonathan Dwyer, drafted in the sixth round, has not dressed for a game yet.
That did not stop Tomlin from continuing to run Mendenhall deep into the game Sunday, his last carry coming with fewer than seven minutes left and the Steelers holding a 38-6 lead.
It's not 18 games yet, but it is a long season and, the way it is shaping up, Mendenhall has returned the Steelers' ground game to its historical effectiveness. They just cannot afford to lose him.
In case there was doubt, Tomlin said Charlie Batch will make his second consecutive start at quarterback Sunday when the Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.
Batch led the Steelers to the victory in Tampa against the Buccaneers, throwing three touchdown passes. He ran his record as a starter with the Steelers to 4-1.
Tomlin said Byron Leftwich is healthy enough to play and will resume his role as the only backup Sunday.
Chris Hoke, who sprained the MCL in his right knee near the end of the game against Tampa Bay, might be able to play this week, Tomlin said.
The coach listed four other injuries: Offensive guard Trai Essex (ankle sprain), who missed the game in Tampa, reserve safety Will Allen (ankle sprain), backup defensive end Ziggy Hood (ankle sprain) and special-team ace Anthony Madison (hamstring).
He thought Essex might return and the other three should play. He would not commit, however, to returning Essex to right guard, where he started last season and in the first two games before his injury. Tomlin said he liked how Doug Legursky played the position in Essex's absence.
"I thought he represented himself very well. I think that's one of the reasons Trai's feeling better."
The Steelers have no plans to place quarterback Dennis Dixon, who had surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus last Wednesday, on injured reserve this week. When Roethlisberger returns, however, they will have to make room for him on their 53-man roster and are not likely to keep four quarterbacks.
"They say from four to six weeks, but every time it's different," Tomlin said of the length of time Dixon is expected to miss. "We're hopeful he's going to get back to us quickly."
Putting him on injured reserve, "depends on how games go," Tomlin said.
"I never look too far ahead in terms of some of those kinds of decisions. We've got to play a game this week. Injuries are a part of football. You never know. You just don't."