The NFL draft not only provided a rocket booster to the Steelers' offense, it might change part of their playbook. Get ready for the arrival of the Pony backfield, a concept that disappeared from the Steelers' playbook more than 15 years ago.
The idea of lining up two runners in the same backfield went out the window for the most part when Chuck Noll retired in 1991. Since then, the Steelers almost always paired a blocking fullback and a tailback, or deployed a one-back offense. The arrival of Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of the draft Saturday changed all that.
Bruce Arians -- who called Mendenhall a bigger, faster Edgerrin James -- said he will dust off the Pony backfield portion of the playbook he used in Cleveland and try it next season. Mendenhall and Fast Willie Parker in the same backfield at the same time should give defenses plenty to think about.
"Other than the normal one-two punch, they can play together," offensive coordinator Arians said yesterday. "Rashard has enough size as a pass blocker and pass receiver and Willie is improving in that area every year as a receiver."
The Steelers' most famous one-two running punch was Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in the 1970s. They became only the second teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season in 1976 (it has been done twice since then). The Steelers had running pairs in the same backfield later, such as Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie/Earnest Jackson, and Merril Hoge and Tim Worley. The running duo, though, was phased out under coach Bill Cowher, whose coordinators believed in one runner and a blocking fullback.
The Steelers, though, have not had two halfbacks with such pedigrees in a long time. Parker made the past two Pro Bowls and ran for more than 1,200 yards in each of the past three seasons. Mendenhall, the first halfback the Steelers drafted in the first round since Worley in 1989, rushed for 1,681 yards last season and caught 34 passes.
Each can block and catch well enough to make a go of it, Arians said.
"They could block for each other. Willie is capable. You're not going to ask him to lead on the linebacker, but he can handle certain things.
"Again, it'll be a package. It won't be the focal point of the offense because you'd beat the two guys up. But it gives you another package, and in the middle of the season if you lose somebody you have a package you can go to."
Understandably, Arians was overjoyed with the selections of Mendenhall (at No. 23) and wide receiver Limas Sweed (at No. 53) in the second round. The Steelers had those players rated much higher than they were taken.
"I was shocked," Arians said. "It was because of the run on linemen. People panicked. I called it a panic attack on offensive linemen. All of a sudden guys were trading away future picks and stuff to go get one of those tackles because this was the year to get a tackle. And when it happened, the tremendous skill guys dropped. Man, they were passing them up."
Arians was an assistant coach in Indianapolis when the Colts made James the fourth overall pick of the 1999 draft.
He said he rated Mendenhall "a bigger, faster Edgerrin James" and at 225 he can probably add another 5 pounds.
"He's 10 pounds heavier than Edge was and a tenth faster. He has those types of hands and power. Edge, I thought, did as good a job as anybody running the clock out, when he was in Indianapolis for sure. Being able to split out of the backfield is a unique kind of talent."
Parker said the week before the draft that adding another good running back might help extend his career by sharing the load.
"He extends Willie's career, for sure," Arians said. "And it's not like just taking Willie out of the game and putting in a sub, you're putting in a high-caliber guy, close to him, yet different."
Sweed gives the Steelers more depth, another deep threat and the kind of target Ben Roethlisberger wanted, not only a tall receiver at 6-foot-4 but one who has a wide range. Arians calls it the hula-hoop theory, a receiver who extends the area around him in which he can catch the ball. He said Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes also have that ability, in smaller packages.
"Then you don't have to put it on the money every time," Arians said. "You can throw a little behind on purpose -- this kid has that kind of talent."
The two electric additions to his offense should help strike that balance between the run and the pass and also make it more versatile, Arians said. And holding leads in the second half might just have become easier.
"There are a lot of ways to kill the clock; it's just a matter of making first downs," Arians said. "The sure-fire way is if you can beat somebody to death. We were able do that in September and October, and we were not able to do that in December and January for a number of reasons. It is something we were not accustomed to."
I agree with Arian's comparison with Mendenhall to Edge James...I mentioned that to my brother when Rashard was drafted...He said I was crazy...He does like Medenhall but he thought that comparison was far fetched...Arians thinks other wise...