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Breaking Down What a Healthy Rashard Mendenhall Adds to Steelers' Offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 07:  Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes for a first half touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles during the game on October 7, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Nick DeWittAnalyst IOctober 9, 2012

The Pittsburgh Steelers were very happy to welcome back a recovered Rashard Mendenhall to their backfield against the Philadelphia Eagles. Mendenhall, who helped key a victory in Sunday’s game, is likely to be a big part of the team’s offensive strategy moving forward.

Here’s a look at what a healthy Mendenhall brings to the Pittsburgh offense.

 

Versatility

The Steelers showed in the preseason that they had plenty of versatility in their backfield. The problem is that versatility hasn’t necessarily shown up in each player. Each guy instead showed a specific skill set.

That’s a bit different than what Mendenhall brings. He’s a tough, physical runner that can gain yards up the middle when needed and go off tackle very effectively. He’s a good cutback runner, something the team lacks in the other backs.

Perhaps most importantly, Mendenhall can combine all of that with the ability to bounce outside or go into the flat as a receiver. That kind of complete talent set is why the Steelers chose him in the first round in 2008.

 

Physicality

Something that the other four Pittsburgh backs seemed to lack—with the possible exception of Jonathan Dwyer—is a physical style of play. Isaac Redman had previously been great at working in traffic, but that didn’t happen this year.

Mendenhall showed on Sunday against the Eagles that he can work in whatever space he’s given. He did a good job of out-muscling a very tough Eagles front and of finding holes.

 

That Cutback Style

A runner who can cut back is a very valuable piece of an offense. On Sunday, we saw why. Several times when Mendenhall’s expected hole didn’t open or when the defense set up for a specific run direction, he was able to cut back and find another opening.

The reason this is so valuable to the Steelers’ offense is that their offensive line has not done a great job of run blocking. They aren’t opening holes and aren’t giving runners a good chance to get to the next level.

Mendenhall was able to negate some of those deficiencies on Sunday by cutting back and finding a different route. It isn’t always going to be pretty, but at this point that doesn’t matter. Any little bit of effectiveness the Steelers can generate in the run game will be welcome and will help the team earn victories.

 

Better All Around

Mendenhall is one of those players that will come in and likely make the rest of the backfield a better group. It’s not that he’s got a particular leadership quality, although no one can question his effort or tenacity after he worked so hard to get back on the field earlier than many thought.

The trick is that he allows the Steelers to scheme with their other backs rather than having to try to use them in roles they aren’t suited for.

Now, Pittsburgh can settle in with Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer providing relief instead of trying to star. Baron Batch and Chris Rainey can get work on third downs or in passing packages.

I’m particularly interested to see how Rainey is used. Previously, I thought he would be the guy who was set up for a lot of screen passes. Now, I’m wondering if a lot of those touches will go to Mendenhall since he’s a good receiver and probably a better runner overall.

 

Dangerous

More than anything, a backfield with Rashard Mendenhall in it is going to be more dangerous than the one we saw before the bye week.

Mendenhall is shifty and, as long as he holds onto the football, excellent in traffic. The cutback ability we discussed will serve to make the running game more effective and unpredictable. That, in turn, will make play action and the passing game more deadly.

I’m interested to see just how effective Mendenhall is after he takes some hits and has to deal with a game-to-game grind. If he responds well, he’s setting himself up for a nice contract and the Steelers up for a chance to get into the playoff picture again.

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