Pittsburgh Steelers: Which Returning Starter Will Have the Biggest Impact?

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IOctober 3, 2012

Oct 30, 2011; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall (34) runs the ball past New England Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich (50) during the first half of the game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-US PRESSWIRE

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been the walking wounded this year, but they will get a big boost on Sunday with the potential return of Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall.

In his weekly press conference (via Steelers.com), Mike Tomlin said that he expects to have all three back in the lineup against the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We were able to get some of our injured men back,” Tomlin said.

These aren’t just any men. If it weren’t already known, Polamalu and Harrison make the Steelers’ defense what it is, and without them, it is not a very good unit.

While the defense continues to rank near the top of the league in yards allowed, they have allowed 25 points per game, which ranks them as the 12th worst in the league.

As bad as the defense has been, the rushing offense has been even worse—averaging only 2.6 yards per carry and rank 31st in the league with 65 rushing yards per game.

The hope is that Mendenhall can reinvigorate a running game that has been non-existent so far this season.


James Harrison

Polamalu is the best defensive player, but Harrison may be the most important. Just look at how they have played without him.

The Steelers only have five sacks in three games and have gotten nothing from their right outside linebackers. With the complete lack of production from this position, offenses have been able to focus their blocking on LaMarr Woodley.

Harrison will never be able to play to the level that he was at a couple of seasons ago, but if he is healthy enough to step on the field, he will be an upgrade over Chris Carter and Jason Worilds.

Chances are that Harrison will lack the burst to be a consistent threat rushing the passer, but he should at least generate some pressure. Since it is potentially his first game back, Harrison should split time with Carter or Worilds so he can stay fresh throughout the game.

Beyond his ability to get to the passer, Harrison is comfortable dropping back into coverage and defending the run.

Harrison will face a tough matchup problem with the speed and quickness of McCoy, and it will be interesting to see how his knee responds to game speed.

Do not expect to see Harrison dominate the game like he used to, but he should provide enough of a boost to at least get pressure on Vick.

But for this game, getting through it healthy may be the most we can expect from the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.


Troy Polamalu

There is no more important player to the Steelers’ defense than Polamalu. When he is healthy and on the field, the Steelers are more than likely going to win.

The problem is, even if he plays on Sunday, how healthy will Polamalu be? Well, he’ll be healthy enough to help the defense improve from its performance against the Oakland Raiders.

Polamalu starting also means that Ryan Mundy is back on the bench.

Mundy has struggled in a starting role and he is just outmatched by the opposing offenses. Polamalu eliminates this problem and will bring his big play potential back to the lineup.

The defense only has one interception and one fumble recovery, and they will put Polamalu’s instincts and speed to use; they have to defend against a very talented offense which includes LeSean McCoy, Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson.

If the Eagles are running with McCoy, expect Polamalu to play near the line and act as an extra linebacker. The same could be said to help prevent Vick from creating big plays while scrambling.

That will put a lot of pressure on the cornerbacks to defend Philadelphia’s receivers, but it is a risk worth taking since the Steelers are struggling defending the run and pressuring the quarterback.

Dick LeBeau may even elect to send Polamalu on some blitzes to help generate more pressure.

It is a big game on Sunday, and the Steelers will need to use Polamalu to his fullest if they are going to win. But even if he isn’t, he is going to make a big impact by being back on the field.


Rashard Mendenhall

The Steelers’ run-blocking has been horrid, and as a result, Isaac Redman has averaged only 2.3 yards per carry and Jonathan Dwyer just a little better at 2.9 yards per carry.

With a top offensive line, these two running backs would be more than adequate, but the Steelers don’t have that. They are poor at run-blocking, and Mendenhall has had success behind poor lines.

Mendenhall averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season, which many felt was a disappointment At this point, anyone would take that average right now.

As long as Mendenhall can make his cuts in game action, he has the combination of speed and power to be a nice addition to Todd Haley’s offense.

The key will be for him to hit the holes and not dance around in the backfield looking for a wide gap. Mendenhall has the ability to make a big play when he gets to the hole fast and explodes through it.

Pittsburgh could use some big plays from the ground game. The longest carry of the year has only been a 13-yard carry by Redman.

Mendenhall could make an even bigger impact in the passing game.

The running backs have caught 19 of Ben Roethlisberger’s 82 completions, and the presence of Mendenhall could make that number grow.

Redman and Dwyer are solid receivers, but lack the burst to turn them into big plays. Baron Batch and Chris Rainey have had limited snaps and therefore limited opportunities in the passing game.

Assuming Mendenhall can get a large number of snaps, he could become a factor in the passing game as Roethlisberger continues to make efficient throws.

So even though the defense has struggled this year, the Steelers’ ground game has been so bad that Mendenhall has the chance to make the biggest impact upon his return.

If Mendenhall can even marginally improve the Steelers’ running attack, that will make an already improving offense that much better.


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