PITTSBURGH PA - DECEMBER 19: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers hands off to Rashard Mendenhall #34 during their game agasint the New York Jets at Heinz Field on December 19 2010 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
When I first started thinking about the Pittsburgh Steelers Week 16 matchup with the Carolina Panthers, I intially thought that the short week might somehow be a disadvantage for the Steelers. Not long thereafter, I concluded that the short week might actually benefit the Steelers. Here's why. For obvious reasons, teams typically limit the size of their playbook during short weeks. Less preparation time = reduced menu of play calling. For Bruce Arians and the Steelers offense, this might be a great thing. Carolina is not awful stopping the run, but they sure aren't very good. They've allowed the 10th most rushing yards per game (126.2), and though they only allow 4.0 yards per pop - a perfectly respectable number - there is success to be had if you're patient and willing to run the ball on 3rd and 3 and 3rd and 4 situations. Carolina has given up the fourth most rushing first downs (108).
So, I'm expecting Arians to dial up a heavy dosage of the running game tonight. Find a play or couple of plays that work, and then keep going back to the well until they prove they can stop it. Pittsburgh averages 29 carries per game; I'd guess they run it 35 times tonight. Obviously you don't want to wear out Rashard Mendenhall before the playoffs, but securing that No. 2 seed and a first round bye is well worth exerting maximum immediate effort for. That goal is in sight with two wins in the next two weeks. Also worth noting is that while the Steelers may still be sore and hurting a bit from last Sunday's tough game with the Jets, they'll have extra time to rest up before the sixteenth and final game of the regular season, at Cleveland next Sunday.
I'm not quite sure why we haven't seen more of Isaac Redman since his game-winning TD reception against the Ravens. I think that could change tonight provided he's not more banged up than we know about. Ideally, Redman and/or Mewelde Moore will spell Mendenhall in the second half after a big lead has been opened up. But I wouldn't be surprised to see Redman get a series or at least a spattering of carries throughout the game regardless of the score. One final random 'prediction', but I also wouldn't be surprised to see some razzle dazzle at some point. Yes, there's less time to prepare for and practice those plays each week, but by the same token, the defense has less time to prepare. And teams always have a few plays stashed away in their back pocket, and I think tonight's a great night to use one.
And to conclude, let's check out the NFL rushing leaders heading in to the final two weeks. I made the cut off at within 300 yards of the leader. No way Mendenhall could make a late charge and win the title could he? Probably not, but with a 200-yard game tonight he'd have a chance heading into Week 17.