Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Steelers Running Back Situation: An Unknown Commodity

Before the 1987-1988 college basketball season of the now defunct PCAA conference, the various teams' coaches all met for their annual preseason meeting. Each coach spoke of his team's needs and flaws, Jerry Tarkanian, legendary coach of the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, inclusive.

Tark, as he was affectionately known, matter-of-factly said of his team that he didn't know what he was going to do because he had too many players. There were light chuckles and an audible, "I'd love to have that problem" that could be heard around the room. That's because the other coaches heard, "embarrassment of riches", but what Tark meant was "unknown commodities."

The Pittsburgh Steelers could possibly go into the 2012 Training Camp with as many as eight running backs: Rashard Mendenhall (though he certainly will start Camp on the Active physically unable to perform, or PUP, list and presumably the season on the Reserve PUP list), Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay, Baron Batch and maybe unrestricted free agent Mewelde Moore, end-of-the-season 53-man roster addition Chad Spann and end-of-the-season practice squad addition Albert Young.

Embarrassment of riches or unknown commodities?

The question is valid and worth exploring because of Mendenhall's injury that occurred in the final game and landed him on injured reserve. How the Steelers choose to handle the injury will be interesting to follow, as will be the affect of his loss to the Steelers' immediate future.

Let's look at what will greet Mendenhall when he arrives in Latrobe in July. As I stated earlier, Mendenhall will begin camp, providing he's sufficiently healed, on the Active PUP list. As he runs his laps and such he'll presumably not be ready at the start of the season and would, therefore, be put on the Reserve PUP list.

The Steelers would then have to shelve Mendenhall for the first six weeks of the season, meaning he wouldn't be available for any form of organized team practice until week seven. At that point the Steelers would have three weeks to decide what they need to do with him: to add him to the active roster, IR him again or cut him if healthy. Then, if he's deemed ready and is to be added to the roster, they'd have three more weeks to figure out his roster situation and who'll be released to make room for him. That's a possible 13 weeks where we wouldn't see Mendenhall on the football field. Who, then, will we see on the football field?

Conventional wisdom is that Isaac "Redzone" Redman, No. 33 in your program, is the new starter. Redman is Mendenhall's backup and did get the start in the playoff game against the Denver Broncos. He ran well and ran hard, matriculating his way to 121 yards on 17 carries.

There you have it. Article finished. Redzone Redman is the man. Goodnight, Steeler Nation.

Oh, wait...there are still the questions of whether Redman is a full-time starting NFL running back, how would the Mendenhall situation be resolved, what we do and do not know about the backups and whether the Steelers will draft, or look to free agency for, a running back for depth. *sigh* Ok, let's go over all of this. (Who am I kidding? I love this stuff!)

Mendenhall receives a lot of criticism for not hitting holes hard enough or quickly enough at times. Ok, fair criticism. He has often looked as if he was auditioning for "So You Think You Can Dance." It is understandable, though. He's been running behind an offensive line which simply didn't open many holes at all. He repeatedly had to deal with penetration into the backfield that stuffed the play before it could begin.

Regarding this, Merril Hoge once called Mendenhall "extremely powerful and gifted", and said of him and the Steelers offensive line (as was first reported in an earlier blog post  ), "Penetration is the number one killer of a running game: it neutralizes the point of attack, it deters your instincts as a runner, it dictates where you're going to go and it destroys you as a runner."

Your typical fan can't understand this, though. Seemingly, when the quarterback gets hit or sacked, it's the Line's fault, but when the running back isn't running well, it's the running back's fault. Never mind that he ran for over 3,300 yards in 43 starts between 2009-2011, averaging a hair under 4.2 yards per carry and scoring 29 touchdowns. Despite this, the calls for Isaac Redman to become the team's starter could be heard long before Mendenhall's career threatening injury in Cleveland last year.

While Mendenhall is expected to return, his game could be changed to the point where he wouldn't be as dynamic a runner anymore. Mendenhall is powerful, fast (4.45 speed), fairly durable, stop-on-a-dime quick, and, again, dynamic. He's the type of runner who will assuredly be affected by this injury.

Redman may be able to provide tough yards running through the middle and breaking tackles, but he lacks the explosion Mendy has. Neither does he have the change of direction Mendy has that allows him to turn nothing into something, nor does he break outside as well.

That would then affect the effectiveness of passes out of the backfield on a designed play or when the quarterback checks down. That might be where other running backs possibly secure a roster spot.

Being able to be versatile, or, as head coach Mike Tomlin puts it, "position flexible" comes into play here as well. It's more than just running the ball. Backs need to be able to catch the ball, pick up blitzes and block (Jonathan Dwyer, I'm looking at you).

Mewelde Moore, who is an unrestricted free agent, is just such a back, a very competent back. Numbers don't tell the story - in his eight NFL seasons he's never had more than 662 yards, no more than 588 with the Steelers. Moore's value has always been as a third down back who was a reliable receiver out of the backfield running back. Though his intangibles may outweigh his tangibles at this point in his career, they just may be needed for one more year.

If all of what has been written here is accurate, instituting a running back-by-committee system might be considered as a viable option. The different backs bring different things to the table. It is that, though, which may cause the pendulum to swing back toward the "unknown commodity" side.

What do we really know about Baron Batch? Is John Clay the bruising, short-yardage back we need? Could Chad Spann become our version of Warrick Dunn or Darren Sproles? Will Jonathan Dwyer finally put down the Krispy Kremes and take his conditioning seriously? Do the Steelers look to the draft to aid this and select a running back (named Isaiah Pead)? Do they trade for Ben Tate as Blech Report, oops...sorry, Bleacher Report (whose motto is, "We occasionally post articles in English") suggested? These are all questions that, if receiving a negative answer, could take a potential embarrassment of riches to a simple embarrassment.


Here are some scouting reports of running backs who have been and who may again be on the Steelers sideline next season:

Quick, elusive ball carrier who projects as a third-down back in the NFL. Runs low to the ground, gets lost behind blockers, and will pick and choose his spots on the inside. Squeezes through small openings of the defense, shows a burst, and has the ability to quickly cut back against the grain. Makes defenders miss and creates yardage. Terrific receiver out of the backfield who nicely adjusts to the errant throw and extends to make catches away from his frame. --

JONATHAN DWYER: a big, bruising back who's far more agile than his size would indicate. He can get small when he needs to so he can get through a crease, and, because of the offense he works in, he does an excellent job at being patient and setting up his blocks.  He runs with a nice forward lean and has a good burst. Now on the downside,...he's good at working through arm tackles but doesn't battle like you'd think a player his size would. He also hasn't been featured as a wide out, and doesn't do a lot of juking and jiving in the open field.... Being successful out of a traditional offense is well within his skill set....His weight could be an issue. Dwyer has a ton of upside, and he's one of those guys that slips a little in the draft, gets on a team that knows how to use him, and has a long productive career. He gets chunks of yards, scores a lot of touchdowns, and...does everything you want out of a running back and does it well. -- Curt Popejoy of Draft Board Insider -

The University of Wisconsin's John Clay is a strong, powerful runner who can either run guys over or make a quick cutback to run downfield. When Clay has the ball, everybody knows it. He looks like a linebacker who just got hold of an interception when he runs....Clay doesn't have a lot of film catching the ball out of the backfield or doing much pass protection. He is sometimes not even on the field on third-down or in other obvious passing situations. These sorts of things can be coached to him of course, but no team would ever consider using a running back as an every-down player if he didn't have these skills. This limits his immediate impact greatly.

Clay will likely need to lose some weight and try to improve his speed at the next level. He's a tough runner at 248, he can be a tough runner at 232. He lacks a second gear and rarely initiates contact to fight for extra yards. -- Matt De Lima -

Spann could be described best as a rolling ball of dynamite in a small package. However, don't be fooled by his height, because the Northern Illinois running back packs a powerful lower body to run through contact. --

Chad Spann was originally signed to the Steelers practice squad on the 12th of December after he spent time with the Colts and the Buccaneers. He was undrafted in 2011. He's 5'8", 201 lbs and played four seasons at Northern Illinois University where he amassed 2,916 rushing yards on 536 carries with 48 touchdowns.

Young was a three-year letterman at Iowa. He finished his career with 3,173 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, only the third player in school history with 3,000-plus yards on the ground. Career rushing totals include 660 attempts for 3,173 yards and 23 touchdowns . . . ranks third in career rushing yards and is just third Iowa player to surpass 3,000 yards . . . collected 79 career pass receptions for 705 yards and two touchdowns. --

Running back Albert Young is from last season's practice squad. Young spent one season with the Jacksonville Jaguars and three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings after signing as a rookie free agent in 2008. He has played in 10 career games, gaining 82 yards on 25 carries. He suffered a season-ending knee injury after playing in three games in 2010.