PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 16: Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers dives over the goal line to score a touchdown in the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the game on October 16, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Before the 2011 season, I thought Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall more than established himself as the number one tailback on the team. He rushed for just over 1,100 yards in 2009, and then really took off in 2010 with 1,273 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. In last year's playoffs, I thought Mendenhall validated his top shelf status with a series of solid performances. Even though he only rushed for 46 yards against the Ravens and coughed up the football, he also scored two very tough short-yardage touchdowns, including the game-winner in the closing-moments.
In the AFC Title game against the Jets, Mendenhall really shined, rushing for 121 yards and a touchdown and was arguably the best player on the field for the Steelers that evening.
But then, the Super Bowl happened. Rashard didn't really have a bad game--he averaged 4.5 yards on only 14 carries--but there was that crucial fumble in the 4th quarter when the Steelers had momentum and were looking to put the final touches on an epic comeback.
Then, of course, there were those tweets in the offseason. That didn't help matters any.
And, Rashard didn't get off to the greatest of starts in 2011. He only accumulated 173 yards on 58 attempts through the first four weeks. People were saying he danced around too much and didn't hit the holes, but where were the holes? The line was in a shambles. Offensive linemen were dropping like flies and the same five guys never started the same game twice. Ben Roethlisberger was running for his life often in the first month. If the offensive line couldn't keep the quarterback upright, how could a running back possibly thrive behind it?
Then, there is Sir Isaac Redman. People love Redman. He's like a folk-hero in Steeler Nation and there is a certain segment of fans who wouldn't mind seeing him supplant Mendenhall as the lead back in the Steelers' offense.
Mendenhall had to sit out last week's game against the Titans with a hamstring injury, and Redman's fans would get there wish as he got the start against the Titans.
Max Starks came back to start at left tackle last week and that seemed to stabilize the entire offensive line. Being at Heinz Field didn't hurt matters, either. The line not only protected Roethlsiberger, but they run-blocked much better. Through the first four-games, the team kept insisting that they were close, that it seemed like a different player was missing his blocking assignment each play, and if they could just shore some things up, the running game would improve.
Redman looked OK against Tennessee. He ran hard but only gained 49 yards. Jonathon Dwyer was the one who rushed for over 100 yards, but 76 of them came on a picture-perfect running play in-which everyone hit their assignments and opened up a huge hole for Dwyer to run through.
Redman and Dwyer both did well in filling in for Menhenhall last week,but just imagine how the running game would look if a number one running back could play behind that same kind of blocking.
Sunday against the Jaguars, Mendhenhall was back in the lineup, and the offensive line performed about as well as it did last week and opened-up holes in the running game. Rashard hit the holes with confidence and showed the kind of burst that only true high-caliber tailbacks possess. And just like in the playoffs last year, Mendenhall set the tone for the offense early-on by scoring the game's first touchdown on Pittsburgh's first drive of the day. Rashard also set the Steelers up for another score with an impressive 68 yard run in the second quarter.
All told, Mendhenhall rushed for 146 yards on 23 carries. Those are the numbers of a franchise running back.
The key to any rushing attack is the offensive line, and even though the Steelers have a nice stable of running backs, their running game is at its best when the line allows Mendenhall's talents to shine through the brightest.