Rashard Mendenhall has the starting job at running back for the Arizona Cardinals for now. Head Coach Bruce Arians likes Mendenhall as a three-down back, and he will be an important part of the Cardinals' success in 2013.
But can he carry the Cardinals back to their winning ways? Keep in mind that the Cardinals have only had three winning seasons (1998, 2008 and 2009) since moving to Arizona 25 years ago. They've also had three more seasons (1994, 2007 and 2011) at 8-8.
Given that, it's safe to say that winning teams in Arizona don't happen often, so Mendenhall will have his work cut out for him. We'll take an in-depth look at how tall of a task that is in this article.
Let's take a look at the last Arizona running back to have what people would consider a successful season. That would be Beanie Wells, who ran for 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns on 245 carries in 2011.
For some perspective, the Cardinals have only had 14 running backs rack up 1,000 or more yards in a season. That takes into account every year since the Cardinals became an NFL team. In Chicago. In 1922. The Cardinals have also had six running backs in the last 90 years record 10 or more touchdowns in a season.
Mendenhall's really got his work cut out for him when you take history into account. But it can be done. Mendenhall can still be an effective runner and help get the Cardinals back to their winning ways. Here's how:
1. He needs to have a healthy Levi Brown blocking for him
Brown missed the 2012 regular season with a torn left triceps muscle sustained in the preseason finale against Denver. Let's take a look at the 2011 season when he was healthy and show what he can do.
We'll look at two huge plays from the Cardinals' visit to St. Louis in 2011.
In the first image, Wells is highlighted in yellow while Brown is in the red box. Arizona wide receiver Andre Roberts (white circle) runs in motion toward the bottom of the screen, and it draws the linebacker (blue arrow) down with him in man coverage.
At the snap, fullback Anthony Sherman will head forward to block. Tight end Jeff King is on the left side of the line, and he takes out the defensive lineman across from him while left guard Daryn Colledge pulls out (white arc) and goes to give Wells more help. Rams defensive lineman Chris Long (blue arrow) is able to get through the offensive line and potentially cause trouble.
The result of the play is that Wells has a nice lane to run through despite the pursuit of Long and two other Rams. Center Lyle Sendlein (white box) makes an extra block downfield to ensure a big gain for Wells. This play wound up going for a career-best 71 yards for Wells.
In this next play, Wells is at it again with excellent blocking from Brown and the offensive line.
Wells (yellow circle) will get help from a pulling Colledge and Brown (red arcs), while Sherman (white line) comes up to make the blocks on all three linebackers. Once the blocks are made, Wells patiently finds a seam in the blockers and has a one-on-one with the free safety (black circle).
The safety rushes forward and takes a poor angle at Wells. The safety dives back for him at the 48-yard line. He misses, and the only thing that keeps Wells from the end zone is a shoestring tackle from Quintin Mikell.
Whether he goes straight ahead or pulls, Wells was effective with Brown blocking ahead of him. Mendenhall should have a similar chance for success, and Brown will be a big part of that.
2. He needs to have an H-back who can effectively pave the way for him out of the backfield
Arizona traded Sherman to Kansas City this offseason, so it no longer has a fullback on the roster. In this Bleacher Report article about the Cardinals' running backs, note that Mendenhall is running out of the I-formation on two of the three plays he's highlighted in.
Having a capable blocker in the backfield with him increases Mendenhall's chances for success greatly.
3. He needs to get the lion's share of the carries
The running-back-by-committee approach will greatly hinder Mendenhall in his quest to carry the Cardinals. He's going to need to get carries similar to what Edgerrin James got in the 2006 season for Arizona. That season, he carried the ball 337 times for 1,159 yards and six touchdowns. Matt Leinart was second on the team in carries with 22.
He has shown before he can take on a heavy load. Mendenhall ran the ball 324 times in 2010 and racked up 1,273 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. He must have a similar workload of at least 290 carries to put the running game on his back.
4. Mendenhall must be effective in the I-formation
Some of his biggest runs came out of that formation, as we'll see below.
As shown above, Mendenhall is the tailback with a fullback slightly off to his right. Hines Ward (yellow arrow) will run a motion route and take the cornerback (red arrow) with him.
After the play starts, notice the seven blocks thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Mendenhall gets a nice lane (yellow lines), runs downfield, eludes a diving defensive back and hits the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown in overtime against Atlanta.
In summary, Mendenhall can play a key role in Arizona's success, but he needs help to make it happen. Like a roller coaster, he can have big games, but he can also be held to 50-60 yards in others.
His career average of 4.1 yards per carry will be an improvement over last season, when the team averaged 3.4 yards per carry and finished dead last in rushing with 75 yards per game.
Of course, there's one final key to Mendenhall doing all of this: He needs to stay healthy. The good news is that except for last season, he only missed one start in his three big seasons with the Steelers.