By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Running back Rashard Mendenhall is tied for 23rd in the NFL with 148 rushing yards in three games, a 3.0 average per run and just one touchdown, and the Pittsburgh Steelers hold the same ranking in team rushing.
Sure, it’s just three games, but this is a marked difference from past years when the Steelers have been rated among the NFL’s best rushing offenses, while Mendenhall has been near the top as well. He had 1,108 rushing yards (4.6 average) and seven touchdowns in 2009 and 1,273 yards (3.9) with 13 scores this past season.
Other than the obvious, that the Steelers offensive line has been ravaged by injuries and the play has been sub-par at best, some believe that Mendenhall isn’t running as hard as before. The running back disagreed.
“The run game is a lot bigger than one person, the offensive line or anybody,” Mendenhall said. “It’s a whole mind-set and an attack from the top, Ben calling the plays or the offensive coordinator, BA, calling the plays. It’s a collective effort with everybody clicking for us to be successful.
“(But) I’m running as hard as ever, and I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been in. So, with that and where I’m at experience-wise, I’m at the top of my game. I don’t think the lockout or anything else like that is to blame for our running game. We just need to make a collective effort to get better.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believed the team was still developing its running game, but also noted that it’s too early to panic. If not, it’s getting precariously close, and if the running game doesn’t help loosen opposing defenses it likely will be more difficult to pass as well. And that’s not good for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose head has been on a swivel from the outset this season.
“I don’t know that we have a big enough body of work at this juncture,” Tomlin said. “I’ll acknowledge that we didn’t do well (at Indy) and that we better improve in that area and improve in a hurry because we desire to be balanced offensively and be a good offense and be able to win games in a lot of ways and be able to win in that area.
“One things that I didn’t mention about Sunday’s performance was that even though we struggled in terms of running the football, our ability to convert third downs, I think, helped us in that area in terms of moving the football and not allowing it to be a detriment to what we were trying to do offensively in terms of possessing the football and in terms of scoring.”
Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey also noted that the club has to do a better job in the running game, but added that he isn’t worried just yet because “it’s not like we just signed a guy off the street, and he had to come in and start.”
Nonetheless, with Trai Essex possibly at left tackle and an injured Marcus Gilbert at right tackle, it could get a lot tougher before the run game improves, even with tight ends David Johnson and Heath Miller pitching in as much as possible.
“Our guys are more than capable of getting the job done, but we’ll prepare and be ready to go this week,” Miller said. “It should be no more or less than in any game for the tight ends, though, as far as helping out with blocking. As tight ends, we’re asked to do a lot in this offense, so we’re ready for anything.
“(But) that’s our goal every week, to get our running game going, and if we can do that everything else branches off that. So, we definitely need to run the ball better this week, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that. We’d obviously like to be more successful than we’ve been this year, but sometimes the game and opposing defense also dictate what we do on offense. That’s just how it goes.”
Roethlisberger said he wasn’t sure what the issue was with the running game, and he wouldn’t put the heat on any aspect. However, he took responsibility for the sack and fumble that led to a Colts touchdown last week.
“We had a run play, pass option, (and) it’s kind of all quick stuff,” Roethlisberger said. “And we saw something with Mike (Wallace), and I knew I really didn’t have time to set too long and throw it.
“But I thought I had enough time to get a quick pump and get a touchdown. But I held onto it too long, and the pass play probably took longer than we would have liked. So, that was the result.”