After head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim overhauled the running back position this past offseason, questions arose about who would be the No. 1 back heading into the regular season.
Even though Mendenhall only played 32 offensive snaps during the preseason, he showed good patience, great vision and an unexpected burst.
On 13 carries in two games, he amassed 79 rushing yards and forced three missed tackles. The analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) awarded Mendenhall a +2.8 grade overall, which made him PFF's 10th-best preseason running back.
Yes, strong preseason performances don’t always translate into top-notch regular-season performances, but Mendenhall’s ability offers heaps of hope to an organization that finished dead last on the ground in 2012.
Let’s go to the tape and examine Mendenhall behind Arizona’s new-look offensive line.
On this first-quarter play against the San Diego Chargers, the Cardinals offense was in “11 personnel.” Mendenhall was the lone back in the backfield, two receivers occupied the left side of the formation and a tight end as well another receiver took up the right side.
As soon as the ball was snapped, the hog mollies up front did a really nice job of locking up their defenders on the line of scrimmage.
Additionally, wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts all did their part by throwing key blocks on the Chargers’ defensive backs.
Fitzgerald’s block was easily the most crucial on the play. Mendenhall didn’t see any running room between the tackles, so he bounced it outside to get loose. If Fitz hadn’t made the block he did on strong safety Marcus Gilchrist (No. 38), the play would have been stopped dead in its tracks.
Because of the block, Mendenhall turned the corner with ease and stiff-armed cornerback Derek Cox (No. 22) down to the ground. After the stiff arm, the 2008 first-round pick scampered down the right sideline for 20 extra yards.
Despite being one play, that run had to put a smile on Arians’ face. Mendenhall demonstrated quickness, elusiveness and proper vision.
This second run didn’t net as many yards as the first, but it proved to be equally impressive.
Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin’s offense deployed two wide receivers, two tight ends and one running back. Rob Housler was on the right side of the line and Jim Dray was lined up in the backfield on the left hash mark.
Right away, the left side of San Diego’s defensive line mounted a good push up the middle, which meant Mendenhall had two options on the play. He could have either bounced the play to the outside or run right between Dray and left tackle Levi Brown.
He wisely chose to run between Dray and Brown.
Brown blocked down on linebacker Larry English (No. 52) and Dray stood up linebacker Jarret Johnson (No. 96). With two key blocks secured, Mendenhall exhibited superb vision.
After he squirted through the hole, Mendenhall picked up a few hard-earned yards after contact by dragging defensive end Drake Nevis (No. 75). His relentlessness turned a four-yard run into a 12-yard gain.
On this last play versus the Dallas Cowboys, Mendenhall showed fine lateral agility.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s defense came out in a 4-2-5 formation. Arizona’s offense countered by arranging three wide receivers, one running back and one tight end. By bunching the receivers, the Cardinals were hoping they would have an easier time creating a wall on the right side.
As you can see, Fitzgerald provided another excellent block on the outside to give Mendenhall spacious running room. Roberts didn’t quite tie up safety Brandon Underwood (No. 23) as long as Fitz tied up Sterling Moore (No. 21), yet it was still viewed as an impact block.
In addition to the two outstanding blocks, Mendenhall’s jump cut helped him quickly find and hit the correct hole.
After slipping one tackle, the 225-pound bruiser bowled over Underwood for a first down and 11-yard gain.
These are the types of runs coaches and front office members want to see from a player who has sustained knee and Achilles injuries in the past. No one knows if Mendenhall can avoid the injury bug in 2013, but we do know he is by far the most physical back in Arizona right now.
Based on Mendenhall’s preseason tape, the NFL front office man is right. On a low-risk, high-reward deal, the Cardinals may have lucked out when they signed the Super Bowl-winning ball-carrier.
Now, Arizona just needs the offensive line and Mendenhall to duplicate their preseason success in the regular season. If a clean bill of health and stout offensive line play follow Mendenhall through 16 weeks of the season, there’s no question he will be awarded the NFL’s 2013 Comeback Player of the Year.
Sure, it may sound far-fetched at the moment, but less talented players have taken home the honor in the past. Running backs Charles White, Greg Bell and Barry Word have all been recipients of the award. You can’t tell me Mendenhall doesn’t have more talent than those three players.
Hats off to Arians and Keim for finding a free-agent steal during a hectic offseason.