On the Steelers: Tomlin has plans for three running backs
Three years after Mike Tomlin ran Willie Parker until his wheels came off, he will take a more prudent approach with his new horse at running back.
Rashard Mendenhall, who emerged from Tomlin's doghouse to lead the Steelers with 1,108 yards rushing last season, will start and also serve as the prime third-down back, as he did for the second half of last season.
Holding down those two jobs on a team that does not have another back with a strong pedigree and has acknowledged a need to pay more attention to the ground game can mean overwork. Ask Parker, whose leg was broken on his 321st carry of the 2007 season, a season that began with Tomlin saying he would run Parker until his wheels came off. Tomlin, in his first season as Steelers coach then, might have learned something from the experience. He said Monday that Isaac Redman will get the first chances in short yardage and that Redman and veteran Mewelde Moore will be used if Tomlin determines Mendenhall is being overused.
"Rashard is our feature runner. He's good in about all circumstances you put him in. He's had a good training camp and preseason. He's good with the ball in his hands, he's good with the blitz pickup out of the backfield. We like how his game is shaping up in that it's well-rounded. He's an emerging player. He's becoming a veteran player. We're going to call on him."
"We are going to monitor his touches simply because that's the appropriate thing to do this early in the season. He is going to be in; he is capable of staying in on third downs. But, of course, we're also capable of inserting a Mewelde Moore or even an Isaac Redman for that matter.
"We're going to be thoughtfully non-rhythmic here as we get started but for different reasons, one to preserve Rashard to be inclusive to the contributions of those men."
Redman earned a nickname of "Red Zone" in the preseason as a rookie for his ability to gain the short yards needed for first downs or touchdowns, yet he did not make the team in '09. He continued his progress this summer to the point he will be given that role.
"Isaac Redman is going to have an opportunity to be featured in that area," Tomlin said.
"He's been very good in that area in the two-plus years he has been here, largely in preseason. We are going to give him the opportunity to see if he can excel."
There will be no two-headed quarterback to open the season. Dennis Dixon will start. Charlie Batch will not play unless necessary.
"That's not our plan at this juncture," Tomlin said of using Batch in spots. "We are going to play Dennis."
Dixon's performance will determine whether he stays in that job during Ben Roethlisberger's suspension, Tomlin said. Byron Leftwich, who would have started the season at quarterback had he not sprained the MCL in his left knee, could return to health by the third or fourth game, although he hopes to return by the second.
"It depends on how he plays," Tomlin said of Dixon. "And that's the nature of the NFL. I think anybody who suggests anything different is misinformed or misleading you. Injuries are a part of the game. They are unfortunate, but they also provide opportunities for others. What those others do with the opportunities often times determine what happens going forward. I acknowledge that."
Coordinator Bruce Arians was not happy that Dixon ran several times out of the pocket early in the preseason when he said receivers were open. Arians preferred Dixon throw the pass. But Tomlin said Monday that,
"We just want him to do what comes natural. If he's playing on instinct and knowledge, it's like running water.
"I think if you give him too much instruction in regards of things you're discussing then it's not going to be natural. It's not going to be fluid. It's not going to be natural. It's not going to be comfortable. And those are things I want his performance to be."
The Steelers have changed their practice squad, signing rookie defensive tackle Al Woods and releasing rookie defensive end Doug Worthington, their seventh-round pick.
Woods was a fourth-round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints from LSU, the 123rd pick in the draft. The Saints traded away a sixth-round pick and their fourth-rounder to Arizona to move up seven spots in the fourth round to take him.
He is listed as 6 feet 4, 314 pounds.
Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El will take snaps at quarterback in practices this week for two reasons: They have only two healthy quarterbacks and Randle El, a starting quarterback at Indiana University, will serve as the emergency No. 3.
"That's one of the reasons why we brought him back, this guy is extremely versatile," Tomlin said. "He provides big-time flexibility for us in the punt-return game. We know he's capable there. He worked some holding [for kicks Monday]. He will play some quarterback here over the course of the week in preparation of the game."
Randle El also serves as their No. 3 receiver.