Pittsburgh Steelers: Rashard Mendenhall Needs to Turn Timing in His Favour
Just like in life, timing is everything in football.
Whether it be Eli Manning releasing that pass to Mario Manningham at exactly the right moment in the Super Bowl or the Colts landing the best quarterback prospect, Andrew Luck, since Peyton Manning at the very end of Manning's Indianapolis regime, timing is vital to success in the NFL.
For Rashard Mendenhall, the timing couldn't be any worse.
After 813 carries, trudging through his own offensive linemen on his way to 3,367 yards and 29 touchdowns, Mendenhall suffered a torn ACL against the Cleveland Browns in the penultimate game of last year. The Pittsburgh Steelers' feature back will miss the start of this season at the very least and will likely never be back to 100 percent effectiveness until the playoffs.
For any player entering the final year of their rookie contract, that is a disastrous situation. For Mendenhall, the situation is compounded by the alterations the Steelers have made this offseason.
Mendenhall is maligned by many in Pittsburgh for his hesitation with the football at times, so much so that a large portion of the fanbase see his injury as a blessing in disguise. The Steelers are replacing Mendenhall with a committee of less-proven backs. Isaac Redman will be the primary ball-carrier.
Redman is beloved by Steelers fans in a similar way to how fanbases love a team's backup quarterback. Redman has 162 career carries and has run hard on every single one of them. With a fanbase who has followed players like Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris in the past, that is the kind of back those fans have historically loved.
Redman is far from Bettis or Harris, but he has been effective as a situational runner and backup.
Whether he is ready to carry a greater load is another test entirely, however. Redman has run hard with every opportunity on the field so far, but he hasn't had to endure as much as Mendenhall. Much like a backup quarterback who plays well in a few games but doesn't have the same talent level as the signal-caller starting ahead of him, Redman benefits largely from his reduced exposure.
While Mendenhall's timing is horrible, Redman's is perfect.
The 27-year-old is getting his first opportunity as a full-time starter, with none of the hindrances Mendenhall had and with much greater help. As a team the Steelers' rushing attack should improve without Mendenhall, but that is because of the team's additions around the position rather than as a result of the change in the backfield.
Bringing Todd Haley in to replace Bruce Arians in the offseason should prove to be one of the most important moves the Steelers have made in recent memory. Haley appears to be bringing in his offensive scheme from Arizona, where he was the offensive coordinator of the Cardinals.
That should see the team use fewer complex, slow-developing run designs, which were staples of Arians' playbook—unsuccessful staples, for the most part. Haley has also promised to bring back the fullback. Even though this change is coming a season too late (TIMING!) to sign Vonta Leach, it should still massively benefit the Steelers' rushing attack.
With a lead blocker in the backfield, the team should have more decisive running plays.
David and Will Johnson, both converted tight ends, are competing to be the team's starting fullback. While neither equal Leach just yet, and likely never will, both have a lot of talent to become more than adequate lead blockers in the running game. David Johnson worked in that role previously under Arians, but was often overextended by having to shift in space. The addition of Leonard Pope and Weslye Saunders' eventual return from suspension should allow David Johnson to fully focus on being a better fullback.
Not only will Redman and the committee of other contributing backs benefit from Haley's better run design, but they will also benefit from his less predictable play-calling.
Bruce Arians was reportedly an excellent coach of wide receivers, while he also designed some excellent pass pattern combinations, but his predictable play-calling was always an issue. This was epitomized in the Super Bowl on Rashard Mendenhall's fumble. Clay Matthews knew the play before the Steelers had even broken from the huddle simply from his film study.
On that play you can clearly see Doug Legursky being beaten so badly in his block that he is eventually spun around in the backfield. That is something that the Steelers' runners won't have to deal with this year.
With Maurkice Pouncey finally healthy, seemingly for the first time since his rookie season, Willie Colon excelling in training camp as the starting left guard and exciting first-round draft pick David DeCastro at right guard, the Steelers' interior trio of offensive linemen should be nasty road-graders this year. With Marcus Gilbert continuing his development after an impressive rookie season and Mike Adams or Max Starks at left tackle, the Steelers figure to have a very talented offensive line this year.
As noted earlier, many Steelers fans despise Mendenhall for his hesitation with the football when hitting the line of scrimmage. What they fail to take into account is how rarely Mendenhall was given clean running lanes. In the NFL, defenses rarely give up clean running lanes but offensive lines are generally capable of creating creases. During most of Mendenhall's career, he has had cracks rather than creases which he had to blow his way through.
It was a lot easier for Isaac Redman to run hard every time he touched the football because his body was taking less punishment from week to week and year to year. When you are constantly running into a brick wall, the tendency is that you will slow down and look for a way around the wall rather than try to go through it.
For Mendenhall, his hesitation was born from regularly facing plays such as this one against the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are generally one of the worst run defenses in the NFL but their quality has always been on the edges. This play shows off the Steelers' inability to take care of running assignments with the personnel involved.
On this play the Colts have only seven players in the box, while the Steelers have seven players in position to block for Mendenhall. If carried out correctly, Mendenhall should be able to gain some yardage before the free safety can make the tackle. In an ideal world with expert blocking linemen, Mendenhall would be free in space in a one-on-one situation, but even with average blockers he shouldn't be losing yardage.
Jonathan Scott is the reason this play falls apart. With only seven defenders near the line of scrimmage, there is no need for Scott to completely ignore Freeney and run inside, tracking a linebacker. Without a blocker in front of him, Freeney aggressively crashes inside and takes away any opportunity for Mendenhall to run through the middle.
Marcus Gilbert is also initially beaten on the play. This picture is taken at the exact moment Mendenhall first touches the football. He receives it three yards behind the original line of scrimmage with two defenders in his way.
This is when Mendenhall's "dancing " in the backfield begins. Mendenhall fakes to lower his shoulder on Freeney which causes Mathis to collapse inside. Mendenhall instead presses off his planted left leg and shifts his weight to run outside of Gilbert. After initially being beaten, Mendenhall's movement allows Gilbert to once again be a factor in the play.
Even though he initially evaded the two defenders in his way, Mendenhall is too deep in the backfield and is captured from behind by Freeney with two other defenders blocking his way outside of Gilbert.
Two key aspects of the play design were with the team's receivers. Hines Ward can be seen to the right of the screen while Mike Wallace can be seen coming across the play on the third image. Ward was on the field in the slot opposed to having a fullback in the backfield. Wallace is running a fake end around, which drags in the two defenders in field who eventually prevent Mendenhall from breaking outside.
Mendenhall could have run hard up the middle, but if he was to make this play successful at all he would have to have run through both Mathis and Freeney. That wasn't going to happen. His hesitation didn't save the play, but it at the very least gave him a chance to break outside and saved him from a punishing hit. Those hits add up over a career.
From the moment Mendenhall touched the ball he had no chance of making a play. While these plays happen to every team during every game of football, they don't happen with the regularity with which they happened for the Steelers.
On that specific drive, the Steelers ran the ball three times. The first time they gained two yards up the middle. The second play was shown above and the third was a sweep to the left which lost three yards.
There are very few running backs in the league who actually overcome their offensive lines. Arian Foster is an outstanding running back, but without the zone-blocking scheme experts upfront he would not be in the position he is. Only Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson have really been effective elite runners coming from behind a poor line.
With the Steelers' new offensive line, stable of capable runners, new offensive coordinator and attitude toward the running game, they should have a good rushing attack entering the season. However, once Mendenhall returns, and if he is fully healthy, he could finally get the consistent production to match his outstanding talent.
Mendenhall tore his ACL on the 1st of January and had surgery soon after that. That should give him a rehabilitation period lasting into the beginning of September. If placed on the PUP list, Mendenhall would be able to return on the 28th of October to play in the team's final 10 games of the year. Even if it takes him another month or six weeks to adjust back to his game, Mendenhall's timing would be perfect to become a pivotal part of another playoff run.
Isaac Redman is a strong runner, but he is not the all-around football player that Mendenhall is. Mendenhall is more dynamic in the open field, at times a vicious blocker and a better receiver when split wide or on screen plays.
Mendenhall has been the team's feature back for good reason. He combines parts of the different strengths of each of the other backs on the roster without carrying any of their weaknesses. He is not as fast as Chris Rainey, but he is stronger and a better blocker; he may not run as hard as Redman, but he has more explosion and dynamism in the open field. Baron Batch, John Clay and Jonathan Dwyer are mostly unproven and don't appear to be on his level.
Even with all of those backs pitching in, the value of a fresh running back entering November, December and January would be massive for the Steelers.
The last time the Steelers had as much talent on their offensive line as they do this year, Willie Parker was setting records in the Super Bowl. There may not be a Jeff Hartings or Alan Faneca in this group, but there is a lot more talent than anything Mendenhall has played behind.
Don't count out the youngster just yet (Yes, youngster. Mendenhall turned 25 this June). He could time things perfectly to make more plays like this...
Cian Fahey writes for the Guardian, Irishcentral and FFBLife. You can find him on twitter @Cianaf
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