The Steelers have always been known as a running team, but that image has slowly grown less and less accurate as Ben Roethlisberger enters his prime. Like any team would do with a player the calibre of Ben, more and more plays over the course of a game were put into his hands, and the passing game is what began to carry the offense. A struggling offensive line and Willie Parker's wheels falling off certainly assisted in the ratio shift as well. In 2008 Rashard Mendenhall was drafted 23rd overall to help balance the scales. While the passing and rushing attempts were much closer to even last year as opposed to seasons past, it can be argued that we're still not getting maximum production out of the backfield that we could.
Rashard Mendenhall carried the ball 324 times last year, which was the third most of any runningback in the NFL in the regular season. He is certainly a bell-cow back, and proved not only more durable, but a more secure ball carrier than previously thought. But, of the top twenty runningbacks in terms of number of carries, only 3 had less yards per carry than Rashard's 3.9. I don't see that as a knock on Rashard, it is more indicative of his play style. The other three (Steven Jackson, Cedric Benson, and Thomas Jones) are all fairly similar to Rashard in that none are overly speedy backs, they're all more in the mold of the power back.
The other notable statistic is Rashard's catch total. When you look at the top twenty runningbacks in terms of yardage, where Rashard ranks seventh, he has the fifth fewest catches. Many of the top rushing threats who have a low number of catches are taken off the field in favor of a better receiving back, and that is indeed the case for Rashard as well. Mewelde Moore's hands out of the backfield were utilized slightly more, catching three more passes on the year. What is different this upcoming season is there is a chance Mewelde will not be back for those third down catches.
So, this brings me to my main point. The Steelers offense will never truly reach it's fullest potential if Rashard Mendenhall is not utilized more in the passing game. The offense can be more consistent if his catches go up, and more productive if his carries go down. It will allow Rashard to play in space more, which will spread the defenses, and make the running lanes open up for him when they do hand off.
Any "Steeler Football" purists upset at my assertion we should be running even less and passing even more? Fret not.
It is time for the Steelers to give more carries to a spell back, whether it be Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, or Baron Batch. The days of the "Stud Back" are ending, as the league trends more to the two back system. Runningbacks stay fresher throughout the game with less carries, and as a result are fresher later in the year. If the Steelers plan on going to the playoffs and Superbowls (and I believe they do), a relatively fresh backfield late in the year is a great thing. Isaac Redman has shown the ability to be a capable runner who runs with a purpose. He runs hard, and he runs with great balance, which makes him hard to bring down. Jonathan Dwyer is similar, though hasn't proven as much as Redman as of yet. More of either of those two with the ball in their hands cannot hurt.
Does anybody else ever yell "Throw the ball Ben!" at their TV gamedays? If Rashard Mendenhall can get the catches he and Mewelde Moore spilt, and maybe more, this offense can move the chains on a more regular basis. If Ben can get through his progressions and while under pressure get the ball to his backs more often a few things will happen. His completion percentage will go up, which is mainly cosmetic. Along with that however, he will take less sacks, increase the likelihood of making a positive play, and hopefully lower the number of hits he takes over the course of a game. As I said earlier, this will also get the defense focusing on another level of the field, and create room elsewhere for other players to make plays.
This especially applies within the redzone, an area the Steelers seemed to struggle in once they did get down field. I think you see Ben take more sacks once we get into that redzone area because he is smart enough to not throw the ball into a bad spot. It is clear Ben does not like to throw it away, which is why we see so many sacks that make the field goals more difficult, if not taking away the chance at three all together. Utilizing the flats with the runningback out of the backfield can either open up the downfield options on the next play, or Rashard can use his natural skills to make something happen on his own. If the back is open and the pass completed, the short pass can work in the similar way to the running game. It can help put points on the board, and that is what it's all about.
I am not saying become a check-down offense, all I am saying is the more parts of the field the offense uses, the more parts of the field the defense is forced to defend. If Rashard is used less as a ball carrier, and the offense doesn't abandon the run while doing it, the running game can be better off. And if they can get him the ball more through the air, the entire offense will be better too. Use the players you have in the best way to take advantage of all their abilities, especially if two players can compliment each other as well as Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall.