Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall: Growing Pains or Carelessness?

Vicki FarriesCorrespondent IOctober 30, 2009

Seven games into the season, the Steeler offense has had a dismal showing in the fourth quarter of games.  

Four out of the seven fourth quarters were shutouts; the other three generated a total of 16 points.

Besides Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions, the offense is plagued with fumbles especially from the running game.

Fumbling the football is the fastest way to go from a starting position to being demoted to the bench.

Good or great running backs that have game-breaking runs on a regular basis can lose their playing opportunity if the coach thinks that a fumble might be the end result.

As primary carrier, Rashard Mendenhall lost two fumbles in scoring territory the past two games and was benched in the fourth quarter.

Coach Tomlin feels that Mendenhall got a “little careless” when he fumbled inside the Minnesota Vikings’ five-yard line on the second play of the fourth quarter.

Mendenhall had runs of 14, 16, and 17 yards; all on first down and averaged 6.9 yards per carry against a Vikings defense that has ranked first against the run each of the past three seasons.

He fumbled on the Vikings’ five yard line after diving through the air, dropping the ball on the way down and deprived his team of a chance to build a 10-point lead.

A little careless?

Week three, Mendenhall was benched because he was confused about his assignments and didn't appear to know his playbook.

A little careless?

Is it really just being careless in the fourth quarter when you want to protect your lead that your running back would drop the ball only to have it recovered by the opposing team?

Despite the fact that Mendenhall has control issues, Tomlin continues to make him the featured back.

"The young fellow fumbled and every time he puts a helmet on, it's a learning experience," says Tomlin.

"It's a learning experience," Mendenhall said. "You learn in the NFL that the minor things are major, so you have to stay on top of everything. I just look forward to getting an opportunity to get to play and show the fans and my teammates what I can do."

If it is a learning experience as he so describes, why is it that Tomlin chooses Mewelde Moore as the fourth-quarter back instead?

Could Tomlin be losing confidence in Mendenhall? 

Moore holds onto the ball better than any of the other backs, in addition to his receiving skills.

Even with his skills, defenses don’t feel intimidated by him as they do Mendenhall.

So what seems to be the problem with Mendenhall and fumbling; is it technique? 

New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin went through a similar problem with former running back Tiki Barber.

Finishing his career with more than 10,000 rushing yards and 2,217 carries, Barber had a problem running with his elbow out.

Barber compensated by bringing his elbow closer to his chest. He had the ball in that position while doing drills and running on the treadmill to break his bad habit.

Or could it be physical?

Former Green Bay Packer coach Mike Sherman dealt with similar fumbling issues with running back Ahman Green.

There was a notion that Green had a condition called Hyperhidrosis, which is the overproduction of sweat, which could have contributed to his tendency to fumble.

The solution, the Packers developed a sleeve he could wear during games that keep sweat off the ball and enabled Green to hold the ball more securely.

However, that did not work. Sherman realized that Green wasn't adequately protecting the ball.

It was noticed that left-handed Green showed unwillingness to switch the ball from left to right arm when running plays to the right side

"He needs to secure that football like it's his first-born son," says Sherman.

So with increased emphasis in practice, Green got a handle on his fumbling.

In his career, Green rushed for 9,045 yards at an average 4.5 yards per carry and 59 touchdowns.

Mendenhall averages 5.4 yards per carry and has four rushing touchdowns this season. Willie Parker averages 3.1 yards per carry and has no rushing touchdowns.

Mendenhall is a big back who has out-gained Parker by 231 yards with only 18 more carries.

The big issue the Steelers need to face is trending. Thus far, Mendenhall has fumbled in back-to-back weeks.

His fumbling was an issue last preseason and he played only four games last season.

Tomlin has put the responsibility on Mendenhall to carry the torch as the “featured back” and therefore cannot be dropping the ball in key games.

It gets difficult after the bye as the Steelers will face Denver, Cincinnati and Baltimore in the next few weeks.

During the bye, Kirby Wilson (running backs coach), Bruce Arians and Tomlin have to consistently work with Mendenhall to ensure he is not a ball dropper.

It doesn’t matter what a running back can do starting from the 10-yard line to the opponents’ 10-yard line if he is giving the ball away in great field position.

That’s how you lose games.

Mendenhall is not a Jerome Bettis, and it's still early in his pro career.

Maybe he'll eventually grow into becoming more comfortable running inside as Bettis did if he follows a few instructions:

Step 1: Learn the proper way to accept the football from the quarterback.  

Step 2: Mendenhall should press the ball against his upper body as hard as he can.  

Step 3: He should learn how to carry the ball with your opposite arm and shoulder as well

Step 4: He should listen to his coaches when they give him advice on how to secure the ball before contact.  

Step 5: He should keep in mind he is going to get hit and hit hard. Protect the ball!

Mendenhall is young and he is still learning.

He needs to continue to improve his skills and build off it moving forward. 


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