Rashard Mendenhall vs. Ray Rice: What Could Have Been for the Steelers?

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent INovember 29, 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

The AFC North isn’t the ground-and-pound division that it used to be, but that does not mean that a running back still can’t lead his team to victory. Just ask Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens.

Down by three to the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens had a 4th-and-29 and all hope was lost.  Joe Flacco settled for a check down to Rice in what should have been an easy play for the Chargers defense.

But Rice found open space, and with a big block from Anquan Boldin, that open space turned into an improbable first down (which was aided by a poor spot by referee Gene Steratore).

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t find a running back that could hold on to the ball, including Rashard Mendenhall.

While Rice was helping carry his team to victory, Mendenhall helped fumble the game away against the Cleveland Browns.

Two fumbles not only helped cost the Steelers the game, but it also got Mendenhall benched against the Browns. That benching will continue this week, as Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Jonathan Dwyer will start and Mendenhall will be listed as the third back.

That means that Mendenhall, a former first-round draft choice, will be behind the sixth-round pick in Dwyer and an undrafted free agent in Isaac Redman.

The Steelers could not have envisioned this when they made Mendenhall their first pick in the 2008 draft. He is the type of back that should be able to carry the team to victory when Ben Roethlisberger is injured.

Now he may not even see the field.

Mendenhall’s counterpart is everything that the Steelers could use right now.

Rice is one of the best backs in the league—not only as a runner, but as a receiver. More importantly, he bails out his team’s erratic quarterback and is one of the main reasons why the Ravens are contenders every year.

To think that the Steelers could have had Rice, who was drafted 32 spots behind Mendenhall. Imagine what he could be doing for this team.

Rice has outrushed Mendenhall 5,171 yards to 3,480 yards and has 31 touchdowns to Mendenhall’s 29.

Where Rice really stands out is his ability as a receiver. He has 298 receptions for 2,639 yards, while Mendenhall only has 75 receptions for 660 yards.

While their receiving numbers can be attributed to the design of their respective offenses, Rice has made it impossible for the Ravens to ignore him in the passing game—Mendenhall has not.

In fact, Mendenhall has never truly established himself in Pittsburgh. There was always so much potential and it never seemed to be realized.

A broken shoulder suffered against the Ravens as a rookie in 2008 and a torn ACL against the Browns in 2012 have hampered Mendenhall’s progress, but that has not been the only thing.

Mendenhall has been known as “Spindenhall” around Pittsburgh because of his knack to use the spin move or dance near the line of scrimmage rather than hit the hole.

Over his career, he has been behind a shaky offensive line, but has been unable to make his own yards, something that both Redman and Dwyer have been able to do.

Even though he is a bigger back, Mendenhall has never demonstrated the ability to run with power and rarely is able to showcase his good speed with big runs.

After a huge fumble in Super Bowl XLV, Mendenhall received a lot of criticism from fans for having a fumbling problem. With three fumbles already this year, he has done nothing to dispel that.

As much pure talent as he has, Mendenhall just has never fully been able to put it together in Pittsburgh and become the feature back that the Steelers have needed.

Everything that the Steelers need can be found in Baltimore’s Rice.

At only 5’9”, 195 pounds, Rice can use his low center of gravity to run with power, hit the hole and make his own yards.

He holds onto the ball better than Mendenhall and is simply a much more productive running back who can carry his team’s offense any given week.

Hindsight is 20/20, but you can only imagine what the Steelers offense could look like if Rice was in the backfield instead of Mendenhall.

There are times when a team needs a back to carry the load, and this is one of those weeks for the Steelers, but sadly Mendenhall is not one of those types of backs—Rice is.


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