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Above all else, the Steelers have been consistent in their proficiency in two general aspects of playing football through the years. They know how to play defense, and they can run on offense.
That is why their inability to generate much in their running game this season has come as a surprise. There was little sign that Rashard Mendenhall, who has run for 2,381 yards the past two seasons, would have such trouble through the first three games.
Consider what offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said about Mendenhall a few days before the Steelers opened the season in Baltimore.
"That's our lead dog," Arians said that Thursday after practice. "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."
Well, in the dog-eat-dog world of the NFL, they're having Mendenhall and the Steelers ground game for lunch.
It began in Baltimore when the Ravens held the Steelers to 66 yards rushing. That could be explained away by it being the Ravens defense and as it being just one of those days. They then ran for 124 yards against Seattle in a 24-0 victory that helped cloud over some of the red-flag deficiencies that day in the ground game, such as the inability to get into the end zone on two drives that featured first down at the Seattle 1 and first down at the Seattle 2.
And then Sunday night in Indianapolis, the Steelers were stopped cold. They ran 28 times for 67 yards, an average of 2.4 yards per carry. Mendenhall ran 18 times for 37 yards. Two of his carries over a three-play span in the third quarter went for 15 and 7. The other 16 times he ran the ball produced 15 yards, or the same number Ben Roethlisberger had on five carries.
Has Mendenhall jumped the shark after having a combined 412 touches, combining runs and receptions in the 2010 regular and postseasons? Or is the offensive line merely incapable at the moment of providing him with sufficient holes?
"We have to go back to the fundamentals," said tackle Trai Essex, who may get back to the starting lineup after two tackles and a guard left the game Sunday night with injuries. "We're not doing something right. It's disappointing as an offensive line that we did not get the run game going."
Essex, after the game Sunday, predicted a difficult Monday for the line when they were to meet with their coach, Sean Kugler.
"It's going to get scary in the film meeting with Coach Kugs," said Essex, who entered the game Sunday night at right tackle for injured Marcus Gilbert in the third quarter. "Even though we won, we didn't play up to our caliber. We have to get Rashard those holes. Rashard and Isaac, they run hard, we just have to give them more opportunities. We're one block off pretty much every time. We just have to get more chemistry up front."
Or, more physics.
Mendenhall has looked good at times, particularly in the second game against Seattle, running in the open field. But he has been stutter-stepping, spinning and changing direction before he hits the line of scrimmage, often away from where the hole is -- or was designed to be.
One source on the team said the run calls against the Colts looked nothing like the ones they practiced the week leading up to the game.
The Steelers did not use Isaac Redman to spot Mendenhall against the Colts as they did in their previous two games. He had his most significant playing time on the final drive, when the Steelers moved 60 yards for the winning 38-yard field goal. He ran for 3 yards on third-and-1 at the Colts 21.
Mewelde Moore and Redman handled all the duties at running back on that drive, often with both on the field. Moore sparked the drive with a 22-yard catch and run, and he put Shaun Suisham closer for his kick with two runs up the middle for 9 yards before Redman picked up the first down to enable them to run the clock down.
Mendenhall spent that series on the sideline, which coach Mike Tomlin explained as: "We were just in two-minute football. Of course we've got a great deal of comfort in what Mewelde is capable of doing and you saw what he's capable of doing."
They need to see more of Mendenhall actually doing it, too. Arians said before the first game that Mendenhall had "come back in fabulous condition."
"He has been everything we hoped he would be in the preseason and training camp. I thought he's as good as he's ever been right now in the running game and the preseason."
He and they need to add the regular season to that checklist.
No information was released Monday on the evaluations of the injured. Left tackle Jonathan Scott has a left ankle sprain. Right guard Doug Legursky has what seemed to be a minor shoulder injury. Gilbert has a right shoulder injury and went back into the game at left tackle when Scott left late in the final drive.
First Published September 27, 2011 12:00 am