The Steelers running game is tied for last in the league through the first 3 weeks of the season (3 way tie with the Raiders and Titans). Pittsburgh is averaging just 2.6 yds per rush and has a combined pitiful 195 yds total rushing. If that doesn’t make you cringe as a Steeler fan, I don’t know what will.
The offense hasn’t ranked that low in rushing in 62 years; one can only imagine what the great Jerome Bettis must be thinking these days. The ground and pound, 3 yards and a cloud of dust offense is but a memory these days with so much firepower available through the air. Still though, the Steelers do have capable ball carriers on the roster who just quite haven’t found their groove yet this season.
Isaac Redman has just 72 yds on the season and 1 touchdown, and his partner Jonathan Dwyer has 70 yds. Those aren’t exactly numbers that are going to scare anybody, but perhaps relief is in sight.
Rashard Mendenhall has been fully practicing for the last few weeks, minus the red “don’t touch me” jersey. His teammates have recently commented that he’s looking better than ever; able to accelerate and cut better than they’ve seen him do in the past. Before tearing his ACL last season against the Browns in the final regular season game, he had 928 yds rushing and 9 touchdowns; a 4.1 ypc average.
The popular thought lately is that when Mendenhall comes back things will be better. That may be true, and certainly he can’t do much worse than what the ground game has produced to date, but there is another issue to be aware of.
The offensive line is struggling not only to stay healthy but with their run blocking too. Mendenhall is a cut back runner, using quick bursts and speed as a big part of his game. Jonathan Dwyer may be closest thing to Mendenhall in terms of running style but #34 has the breakaway speed that the team has been lacking so far this season.
Mendenhall’s ypc average over the last 2 seasons is 3.9 and 4.1 respectively; and while those aren’t bad numbers, its how he’s getting them that is still a concern. According to the stats for these last two seasons, you notice that his rushing yards each week vary greatly. For example, the numbers below from 2011 show just how difficult it’s been for him to be consistent.
So we can’t just simply say that things will be back to normal when Mendenhall returns because normal isn’t exactly a consistent running game based on past experience. I’m not a Rashard hater by any stretch but I’m also not convinced his return is the key to success on the ground given the issues with the blocking. Even if the Steelers are a passing team now, they still need to run and until the offense line can find a way to stay healthy and play better we can’t rule out a struggling ground attack for the time being. No matter who is carrying the rock.