The biggest weakness of the Pittsburgh Steelers entering the 2008 offseason was the offensive line. After the Steelers management made no real effort to improve the unit, many believed the Steelers were in for a long year.
It is debatable that the reason for the Steelers rushing game finishing 23rd in 2008, was that the offensive line was just not able to do their job. Starting out the 2009 season, the real culprit reared its ugly head, and the true identity of the weakness is no longer a secret.
The running game of the Pittsburgh Steelers, if you want to call it that, was non-existent in the season opening game Thursday on NBC. Starter Willie Parker carried the ball 13 times for 19 yards.
To make matters worse, one of those carries was for eight yards. His average minus his long run was less than one yard per carry.
Former first round pick Rashard Mendenhall had four carries for six yards, with a long of three, meaning other than his long, he averaged one yard per carry as well.
In the fourth quarter of the game, when the Steelers went to the "Lightning" package (no huddle offense), Mewelde Moore was the only running back on the field, and he managed eight yards on five carries. After his long of four yards, he also averaged one yard per carry.
Frank Summers started his first game at full back, and to say he did not play well, would be a compliment. On two separate third-and-one situations, the Tank plowed over nothing but himself, missing two critical blocks, that cost the Steelers two first downs.
A cold hard reality now face the Steelers, what happens next?
"Fast" Willie Parker looked anything but fast. Every time he touched the ball, he seemed to run directly into the defense of the Titans.
Not taking anything away from the Titans, their defense played a fantastic game, but "Fast" Willie did not look very fast. Nearing the dreaded age of 30, Willie Parker can no longer rely on his speed to just out run everyone on the field.
Playing in his contract year, Parker needs to show that he still has what it takes to be the feature back in the NFL. If tonight is any indication of how the year will go, Parker could be in his last year in the NFL.
Rashard Mendenhall, who was the Steelers 2008 first round pick, has done less than Parker. A players first year with the Steelers, they normally do not get a lot of quality playing time. Mendenhall was lost for the season five games into his rookie year.
In the preseason, while Parker was nursing injuries, Mendenhall got the start, and his chance to show that he was ready to take over the featured back role. What he showed, was he was afraid of getting injured again.
Every time Mendenhall was about to get hit, he seemed to duck, or fall, or run out of bounds. That is not what Steelers running back do.
The Steelers have a long history of having punishing running backs. From Franco Harris, Barry Foster, Bam Morris, and Jerome Bettis, the Steelers have big backs to pound of defenses, to wear them out, and win at the end.
Rashard Mendenhall is not the typical Steelers big back.
Mewelde Moore was brought to Pittsburgh to be a third down back. That is his role, that is his job. Catching passes out of the back field is where Moore excels, and when he is asked to do that, and only that, he does it well.
But, Moore is not a starter. He is not a runner that scares defensive coordinators, at least not rushing the ball.
If Moore is asked to carry the ball, he will never last an entire season, and the Steelers ground game will get no better.
Where do we go from here?
The Steelers next game is in Chicago, against the Bears. The Bears are another team that prides themselves on punishing people with their defense, as were the Titans.
So, what does Pittsburgh do about their ground game? Simple, start from scratch.
The Steelers identity is no longer the power running game, and punishing defense. The defense is still punishing, but the ground game is just not there.
It is time to cut the trends, realize that these Steelers are not your parents Steelers, and start from scratch.
Right now, there is a man that played with the Steelers this preseason, his name is Isaac Redman, and he is currently on the practice squad. He needs to be signed to the active roster immediately.
Is he the next Jerome Bettis? Doubtful. Could he do worse than Parker and Mendenhall? How much worse than one yard per carry could he be?
Redman was signed this offseason as an undrafted free agent. During the preseason, he carried the ball 37 times for 145 yards (3.9 per carry), and three touch downs. What was most impressive, his touch down run against the Carolina Panthers came with the Steelers second team in the game, and the Panthers first team defense.
On the run, Redman piled into the Panthers secondary, broke four tackles, and plowed his way into the end zone. One of those broken tackles was Julius Peppers.
Redman also scored in practice three times out of six, during the Steelers goal line drill, pitting first team offense against first team defense. If he can pound it in the end zone against the Steelers defense, then he can do it against anyone.
Justin Vincent is in his second go around with the Steelers, and like Redman, is also on the practice squad. Vincent did no where near as well in the preseason as Redman did, but the heart and determination he displayed, should at least get him a shot. Vincent could spell Redman, or play if Redman is injured.
I will be the first person to tell you that I am not sold on starting a rookie, and having even one in the back field makes me nervous. But at this point, what do the Steelers have to lose?
As long as the only options the Steelers have are "Slow" Willie Parker, and Rashard "Don't hit me" Mendenhall, I will take a running back that is not afraid to stick his neck out, and get the job done. Even if he is a rookie.
There is an old saying, those that do not learn from their mistakes, are bound to repeat them. The mistake the Steelers made this off season (and it is the only one I have noticed), was not bringing in someone that could push Mendenhall and Parker for playing time.
Keeping them could be a mistake that eventually costs the Steelers Lombardi No. 7.