How Rashard Mendenhall Stacks Up against AFC North's Other Running Backs

Mike Batista@Steel_TweetsContributor IDecember 20, 2011

Rashard Mendenhall is fourth in the AFC with eight touchdowns this season.
Rashard Mendenhall is fourth in the AFC with eight touchdowns this season.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Rashard Mendenhall and the Pittsburgh Steelers still can win the AFC North despite Monday night's loss to the 49ers.

However, Mendenhall and the Steelers are out of contention when it comes to the best running back in the AFC North.

Just as the Steelers are second only to the Ravens right now in the division, Mendenhall is second only to the Ravens' Ray Rice on the list of AFC North running backs.

Rice, who leads the AFC with 10 touchdowns and is second with 1,086 rushing yards, could have been a Steeler.

Pittsburgh had two opportunities to draft Rice in 2008 and left him on the board both times.

In the first round, the Steelers picked Mendenhall at No. 23. There's still time for that to turn out as the better move. Not much time, though.

The case is closed on the mistake the Steelers made in the second round that day. They chose Limas Sweed, a bust who would make Dolly Parton blush, two picks ahead of Rice.

No one can knock the Steelers' overall draft record, but that's a stain that won't wash.

At least Mendenhall, at the moment, is better than the Bengals' Cedric Benson and the Browns' Peyton Hillis.

Like Mendenhall, Benson's yards-per-carry average is less than stellar. Mendenhall has 774 rushing yards this season on 202 carries for a 3.8 YPC average. Benson has 959 yards on 244 carries for a 3.9 clip.

Before Sunday, I might have ranked Benson a little bit ahead of Mendenhall. Then Benson fumbled three times in the Bengals' win over the Rams.

Hillis fumbled an AFC-worst eight times in 2010, sullying a 1,177-yard season in which he scored 11 touchdowns and averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

Even though at this point in his career, Mendenhall probably will be remembered most for his momentum-killing fumble in Super Bowl XLV, he's done a good job taking care of the ball this season. He's fumbled only once. Of the nine running backs in the AFC with more carries than Mendenhall, only the Jets' Shonn Greene and the Raiders' Michael Bush have fumbled less than twice.

After missing most of his rookie season with a broken shoulder, Mendenhall has missed just one game since the beginning of 2009, which is more than can be said for Hillis. The bruising Browns' running back has had hamstring issues this season and is too much of a malcontent for me to wish he was in black and gold.

There's one more running back in the AFC North who some say is better than Mendenhall.

And he's on the same team.

A segment of the Steeler Nation population thinks Isaac Redman should be the team's starting running back. Redman has 352 yards this season and 4.2 YPC.

The 6'0" 230-pound Redman is a better short-yardage back.

Rashard Mendenhall runs into some trouble against the Browns.
Rashard Mendenhall runs into some trouble against the Browns.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

During the Steelers' 14-3 win over the Browns on Dec. 8, I'm not sure which image was more disturbing, the awkward bend of Ben Roethlisberger's ankle or Mendenhall's failure to score from the 2-yard line (or closer) four times.

The Steelers, clinging to a 7-3 lead in the fourth quarter, really could have used the points, but the Browns' defense rejected Mendenhall like the cool girls reject Meg Griffin in "Family Guy."

Redman should have been called upon at least once in that situation. He's harder to tackle than Mendenhall. However, I'm not ready to say he should be the Steelers' starting running back. Not yet, anyway.

Mendenhall can be frustrating for Steelers fans to watch. A lot of Steelers fans, including me, would like to see more from him.

But there's no better running back in the AFC North than Rashard Mendenhall.

Except Ray Rice.