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Return of the Workhorse

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There’s no question that running back Rashard Mendenhall needs to be a central feature of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers. With franchise-quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under suspension from the league for four games to start the season, the team’s high-flying aerial attack could be grounded early. Therefore, it’s up to Mendenhall to carry the load, both literally and figuratively.

“I think Rashard Mendenhall could be the most powerful back we have in football. He really has that ability,” said ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, who knows a thing or two about being a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hoge filled that backfield position for the team in the late eighties and early nineties. “He’s got to touch the ball 20-25 times to really demonstrate it on a consistent basis. I think he’ll get that shot. I don’t think they’re going to be a pass-crazy team like they were last year with Ben.”

If Mendenhall does get to tote the ball 20 times a game, that will mean a 320-carry season for the third-year back, nearly 80 carries more than he had last season. In an era where more and more teams are flirting with a platoon situation in their offensive backfield, true 300-carry workhorses are fading fast. Only six running backs carried the ball over 300 times last year, and just three—the Titans’ Chris Johnson, Jets’ Thomas Jones and Rams’ Steven Jackson—broke the 320-mark. Can Mendenhall really buck that trend and carry such a heavy workload?

“Yeah, most definitely,” responded Mendenhall. “If I’m asked to do that, I’ll be ready to do that. Whatever they ask me to, I’ll be ready to do.”

He just might get that chance this season. With Roethlisberger at home for the first chunk of the schedule and no clear competition in a backfield featuring players like Mewelde Moore, Isaac Redman and rookie Jonathan Dwyer, Mendenhall will have every opportunity to carry as much of the workload as he can.

Head coach Mike Tomlin certainly won’t keep that opportunity from him. He famously said he would run former-running-back Willie Parker “till the wheels come off” during the 2007 season. He did and they did. Parker broke down late in the season and is now fighting for carries in a crowded backfield in Washington.

Mendenhall is a different player, though. For one, he’s got youth on his side and hasn’t endured a high-number of NFL carries (only 261) at this point in his career. His style is also dramatically different than Parker’s speed-based assault. Mendenhall weighs 15-20 pounds more than Parker and, though he is still light on his feet, he’s built for a bruising, powerful style of play.

Even if he doesn’t get a heavy workload on the ground, Mendenhall could see more opportunities in the passing game. Running backs coach Kirby Wilson, who has been in charge of Mendenhall since the back was selected in the first-round of the 2008 draft, praised his “outstanding hands” and called him a “real-gifted route runner.”

“He’s just got to continue to understand where he fits in the pattern,” added Wilson. “We think he will be a really nice addition in [the passing game].”

That is, as long as they make use of him. Steelers quarterbacks threw just 13 percent of their passes to running backs last season, the lowest figure in the league.

While Mendenhall will be counted on to lead a depleted offense early in the season, his greatest contributions as a running back could be on the defensive side of the ball.

Consider that some of the best defenses in NFL history were paired with an equally potent rushing attack. The 1970’s Steel Curtain Steelers had a downright dominant stretch of defensive play from 1972 to 1976, ranking first or second every year except in 1973, when they ranked eighth. Their running game, led by Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, also ranked first or second every year except in ‘73, when they, too, ranked eighth.

The ‘76 Steelers are the most interesting test case. Both Harris and Bleier broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark and the defense had one of the best single seasons in NFL history. In the final nine games of the season, Pittsburgh allowed just 28 points with five shutouts. The team failed to win the Super Bowl that year, however, after both Harris and Bleier were lost to injury in the playoffs. The offense couldn’t control the clock, exposing the defense to a heavy workload against a potent Oakland Raiders team, who subsequently controlled the AFC Championship Game.

The Miami Dolphins completed an undefeated season in 1972 largely due to a first-ranked defense paired with the league’s best rushing attack. The 1985 Chicago Bears kept their defense fresh with a heavy dose of Hall-of-Fame running back Walter Payton.

The 2000 Ravens defense, which set the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season,

received some help from a fifth-ranked rushing offense, which helped the team control the ball for over 33 minutes per game. With NFL teams generally facing around 120 snaps or more per game, a six-minute advantage in possession over the opponent can mean a dozen fewer snaps for the defense.

Hoge knows what a powerful and consistent rushing attack means to a defense.

“It’s the one element in football that does impact both sides of the ball in a positive manner,” offered Hoge. “If you create the tempo with your running back and have a very physical, very productive running game, you really eliminate around 9-12 plays per game for your defense. You start pulling those plays out for five weeks, that’s a game less of snaps you have to play.”

Stretched over a season, that could mean as much as three figurative games off for the defense. With injuries happening on a seemingly random basis, the less a team has its starting defenders out there, the better. A significant chunk of snaps off each game might mean that a guy like Aaron Smith, who loves a physical running game, stays healthy for a full season.

“Defensive guys are the biggest fans of the running game,” claims Smith, who was part of the 2005 Steelers team that won the Super Bowl thanks to stifling defense and a powerful running game led by Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. “We love it when the ball’s running because the clock’s ticking. It’s keeping us off the field and makes the game shorter. When we’ve had great defenses, it’s when we’ve had great run games.”

The importance of a healthy and dominant defense can’t be overstated. Since the merger, the team allowing the least points per game made the playoffs in 39 out of 40 seasons, with more than half of those teams making an appearance in their conference’s championship game. Twelve of the teams would go on to win it all.

What’s their secret? Well, 23 of those teams also boasted a top-10 running game. Fifteen were in the top-5. The average running game of the 40 teams that led the league defensively was 10th. Those teams that advanced once they made it to the playoffs generally boasted a rushing rank four spots better than the teams that fell in the early rounds.

While that model has changed slightly in recent years with a pass-first emphasis in the NFL, the goal—time of possession—remains the same. The 2003 Patriots paired their top-ranked defense with the league’s 27th-ranked rushing attack. However, they combined that running game with an effective short-passing attack that meant the team still possessed the ball for over 31.5 per game.

The’08 Steelers paired the league’s best defense with its 23rd-best running game and won it all, but make no mistake: the Steelers have always been a running team in a running town. The suspension of Roethlisberger and the ascension of Mendenhall will lead Pittsburgh back to its roots: a dominant defense aided by a punishing ground game, the formula that won five of the franchise’s six Super Bowls.

If the old adage is true and defense does, in fact, win championships, Pittsburgh’s defensive unit should get a championship-worthy boost from Rashard Mendenhall.

“Mendenhall has showed me that he’s ready to be explosive and powerful and will show that to this league,” said Hoge. “I think the defense will resonate with that as well.”

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