When Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in week 17 of last season, there was talk that he might actually miss the entire 2012 season. And even when his rehab appeared to be ahead of schedule early on in training camp, there was still speculation that Mendenhall would miss at least the first six games of the season.
Maybe it was just me, but I didn't sense much concern among my fellow Steelers fans. The reason, obviously, is because Pittsburgh has a stable of back-up running backs who have shown flashes of ability from time-to-time. Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch and rookie Chris Rainey all possess unique skill-sets, and as a group, seemed more than capable of filling in for number 34.
Redman, a fan favorite, would get the start, and Dwyer, considered maybe the most gifted runner among the back-ups, would share a bulk of the load as well.
Only problem was, the back-up running backs ran like back ups. Over the course of the Steelers' 1-2 start, the offense ran the football 74 times for a total of 189 yards. I'm not discounting the struggles of the offensive line, but needless to say, the Steelers' running game missed Mendenhall dearly.
As it should have.
When James Harrison and Troy Polamalu are out of the line up and Jason Worilds and Ryan Mundy are filling in for them at their respective positions, the drop-off is noticeable. Why? Because Harrison and Polamalu are high-end talents and among the best at what they do.
Same with Mendenhall. You can argue about his pecking order among the starting running backs in the NFL, but there is no doubt that he is the very best that the Steelers have. All the unique skills that the Steelers back-up running backs have individually--power, speed and elusiveness--Mendenhall is a perfect combination of all of those, and that's why he was a first round draft choice out of Illinois in 2008.
In Pittsburgh's 16-14 victory over the Eagles Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, Mendenhall demonstrated the importance of a high-end talent and how it can revitalize a struggling unit, as he carried the football 14 times for 81 yards (5.8 yards a carry) and scored the team's only touchdown. For a guy who was only nine months removed from a major knee injury, Mendenhall looked like he hadn't missed a beat.
All-in-all, the Steelers ground game totaled 136 yards on 31 carries.
I'm not saying that Mendenhall is the panacea for what has been ailing the Steelers rushing attack, nor am I saying that the ground game is all the way back. I'm simply saying that you normally need a high-end talent to make something work. Mendenhall is a high-end talent and another dynamic weapon to add to an already dynamic offensive attack.
It's nice to have him back.