Rashard Mendenhall: Steelers Wise to Not Rush Starter Back

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIISeptember 15, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24:  Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball against the St. Louis Rams during the game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Steelers won 27-0.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Not everyone is Adrian Peterson, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are wise enough to know that with their own former first-round running back in Rashsard Mendenhall. Allowing their starter to mend completely before plugging him into the lineup is a strategy that will preserve the team's playoff hopes and also allow him contact practice reps against one of the tougher defenses in the league.

The shelf life for running backs is ever dwindling, but Mendenhall is just 25 years old. By today's standards, he has roughly five or six years until he will begin to decline.

Pittsburgh is showing discipline for the long-term benefit of the franchise by sitting Mendenhall despite the fact that he's been a full participant in practice since the week leading up to the season opener, according to Tribune-Review reporter Alan Robinson.

After all, Mendenhall is quietly one of the best young backs in the entire league, even though some will argue he hasn't lived up to his first-round billing.

Consider that in his first three full seasons as starter, Mendenhall is averaging over 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns per season. Mind you, that's with a spotty offensive line that seems to always be a patchwork unit, in a division where pounding the rock is incredibly tough as it is.

According to ESPN's NFL injury report, Mendenhall is listed as doubtful for this week's game against the New York Jets. Giving him another week of contact in practice against his own defense is plenty of a test in and of itself. Throwing him into the fire against Rex Ryan's defense might work, but once again, the offensive line is in disarray.

The preseason knee injury to first-round guard David DeCastro is a huge blow, and second-round tackle Mike Adams hasn't quite lived up to lofty expectations.

Sacrificing a couple of early-season games is not going to haunt the Steelers, because the duo of powerful runner Isaac Redman and electric, versatile scat back Chris Rainey can tide the team over for now, especially with elite QB Ben Roethlisberger under center.

It is amazing what you can get away with in today's NFL with the right guy orchestrating the offense.

However, as B/R's NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey wrote last week in discussing the artistry at the running back position, the league tends to be cyclical in nature as far as schematics are concerned.

The Steelers may have been more pass-happy in recent years, but the shaky O-line has caused their extremely valuable, clutch quarterback to take a series of particularly brutal hits. The ground-and-pound mentality would be a welcome change in strategy, and having the Steeler bigs fire off the ball instead of standing up to pass protect so frequently may help them as the season progresses.

If new coordinator Todd Haley adopts that strategy when Mendenhall returns, it would help the back get back into the flow of game speed and intensity more quickly. Not to mention, the odds of Big Ben finally succumbing to a significant injury would drop.

It's no wonder no one can count out the "aging" Steelers.

Mending Mendenhall—and providing a generous window for acclimation after a serious ACL injury—is yet another smart move by a franchise that seems to be in the habit of making them.