Training Camp Spotlight: Running Backs
Heading into training camp 2008, the Steelers seemed to have their running back situation well in control. Willie Parker is poised to return from the broken leg he suffered last year during the Rams game, and the addition of 1st round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall gives the team a 1-2 punch they need. Before the draft however, the situation seemed very different and unsettled. Could Willie return to form after his injury, was Davenport the answer to backup Parker; would Kreider come back? All these and more would play themselves out as the offseason unfolded.
Tomlin mentioned heading into his inaugural season last year that he was “going to run him till the wheels fell off”, speaking of Willie Parker. Last year he did just that as Fast Willie racked up 321 carries before getting injured. After Jerome Better retires the team struggled to find a compliment to Parker who could share the load so going out and getting players like Mendenhall and free agent Mewelde Moore was a top priority heading into the 2008 season.
Speaking of Moore, the speedster from Minnesota looks to not only take over the 3rd duties that were vacated when the team released Najeh Davenport but also help the team improve their much maligned return game. Randle El was the last legitimate kick return guy that the Steelers have had. After using names like Quincy Morgan, Willie Reid, and I heard even pee wee Herman was ready to try out, the team finally realized it needs to find a quality return man. Moore should provide all the skill and talent that position requires and give the return game a legit threat instead of a legit joke!
Back to Mendenhall; the big man from Illinois is a pounder who can break tackles but also has a good burst of speed and quick feet. You would be hard pressed to tell me that anybody thought Mendenhall was fall right into the Steelers lap in the 2008 draft at pick #23 but that’s exactly what happened. You just can’t pass up the chance to draft a skill player like that if you get the chance; and fortunately the Steelers jumped at the opportunity. Running Parker into the ground is not going to solve the Steelers running game problems so it was imperative to find someone to be a compliment back so both players can be as fresh as possible as the season rolls on. Having a worn out running game is not the way to enter the post season so bringing in a guy like Mendenhall will pay dividends all year long. Watching him at training camp during the first 10 days you could see the stud rookie was still trying to find his way and definitely struggled at times. In goal line drills to end practice on August 3, Tomlin inserted the 1st rounder into the lineup. The youngster struggled and was shut down by the defense which prompted some hard words from Tomlin after assessing his progress to date. He looked tentative and definitely seemed to be thinking way too much. That’s to be expected though from a guy coming into the big leagues and Rashard took Tomlin’s words to heart and when given the chance to show what he had in the preseason opener against Philadelphia, he delivered. The rookie ran hard and took a wicked hit but managed to hold onto the ball as he banged out 7 carries for 34 yds behind the starting offensive line ( which is also going through it’s own transition but that’s a story for another day).
Parker is still main guy in the unit and will be the starter but expect his counterpart to get plenty of work as well. Competition breeds excellence and the addition of Rashard will push Fast Willie to up his game and keep his edge because you can bet a 1st round pick is going to want all the playing time he can get so Parker will have to be on his toes and play well. It’s an ideal situation for the Steelers who now have many options at their disposal including 2nd year man Gary Russell has looked very sharp in camp so far and has gotten the attention on of the coaching staff. The team thinks so much of Russell that they released the veteran Davenport. Russell is a project and has a long way to go in refining his skills but he’s got good hands, can catch out of the backfield and runs hard. I watched him break multiple tackles and use his quick feet to elude defenders during drills while showing good vision and control. Look for him to get a lot work in the last 3 preseason games as the team will of course use Parker sparingly.
Carey Davis, the heir to long time full back Dan Kreider has also showed a lot of improvement this offseason. Last year he played well in his first year after being thrust into the role when Kreider went down with a torn ACL. Davis used this offseason to work on his conditioning and really get as much work in as he could heading into camp because he is the guy now and the only true FB on the roster so his role is vital to the success of the ground game. A versatile player, Russell also can catch the short pass and turn it into a nice gainer which makes him another target for QB Ben Roethlisberger to utilize.
All in all the Steelers running game has a new look in 2008 and initial returns from camp and preseason would indicate that there is a high level of confidence in this group to be able to carry the load and get the unit back to being the consistent threat that we are used to seeing.