By Cian Fahey
When Reggie Bush left New Orleans, the Saints made sure to bring in a player who matched his similar skill set despite already having some level of depth at the position. The Saints entered free agency last year, because of the lockout, with Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory as their three running backs.
However, once the season began, the team\’s most important back was free agent addition Darren Sproles.
Darren Sproles is probably the worst runner of the group, as Ingram, Thomas and Ivory all run hard whether it be between the tackles or to the outside. Sproles, who had been the leading receiver in San Diego, wasn\’t hugely in demand or appreciated on the free agent market before going on to having a huge year in New Orleans.
Sproles and Bush\’s impact on the NFL field carries past the statistical sheet. That impact is very important for the Pittsburgh Steelers this year as they attempt to deal with the loss of featured running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Mendenahll has had a solid if unspectacular career in Pittsburgh. He receives a level of criticism for not always running hard or hitting holes on a consistent basis. While that is a fair criticism, it is somewhat understandable considering he regularly ran behind an offensive line which required him to blow open his own holes or gain no yardage.
If you are repeatedly hitting the hole and punishing your body for no benefit, it is bound to impact your mental willingness to run hard. It is that demoralization, which has overcome Mendenhall since his days in Illinois, that led to calls for Isaac Redman to become the team\’s starter even prior to Mendenhall\’s career threatening injury in Denver last year.
While Mendenhall is expected to return to football, his running style could forever be changed to the point that he wouldn\’t be an effective player. Mendenhall is a stocky back who aggressively plants and extends his legs when cutting. That puts a lot of pressure on his knees to carry more weight than most players who run with that style normally must.
Mendenhall\’s long-term loss isn\’t an issue right now. Right now, the Steelers must address what his loss means for their short-term offense.
Isaac Redman may be able to replace Mendenhall with tough running through the middle and broken tackles to punish defenses. However he lacks the explosive speed of Mendenhall and doesn\’t break to the outside as well.
Redman as a runner has proven himself in a secondary role. However, where Mendenhall\’s loss really hits the Steelers is strategically.
While Mendenhall isn\’t Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush, he does share some characteristics in that he is a very capable receiver and threat in space coming out of the backfield. He often lined up as a receiver also, actually running routes, when the Steelers went to five wide under Bruce Arians prior to the emergence of Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace.
Mendenhall has never had that much production as a receiver throughout his career, but the threat of being one is what the Steelers lose without him. The impact which Bush and Sproles made in New Orleans past statistics was on opposing defense\’s gameplans.
When the Saints line up with Sproles in the backfield with Drew Brees, the offense cannot define him as a running back. As far as Sproles is concerned, he has the all-around abilities to take advantage of a nickel defense running the ball or run away from a linebacker in coverage.
Mendenhall also had the ability to be seen as a receiver rather than just a running back. Even though he couldn\’t catch the ball as well as Sproles or Bush, he was a physically imposing blocker.
When Mendenhall lines up in the backfield, opposing defenses have to worry about him coming out of the backfield, catching screen passes, running the ball or count him as an extra blocker. With Redman in the game, teams can cross out his threat as a receiver out of the backfield or on screens because the Steelers won\’t win games if Redman is catching the ball.
Of course, replacing Mendenahll by committee is an option and Mewelde Moore, who is an unrestricted free agent, has proven in the past that he is the atypical Redman in that he is essentially a receiving running back.
The problem with replacing Mendenhall with two or three players, only one of those players can be on the field at any time. Predictability sets in with that strategy and predictability allows defenses to be less reactive and more proactive.
The best offenses in the NFL force defenses to constantly be thinking about what said offense is going to do. Tom Brady\’s New England Patriots do this to perfection as they use their tight ends as matchup nightmares forcing defenses to show their hand in base defense or nickel coverage.
Without Mendenhall, the Steelers don\’t have enough versatility and dynamism in the backfield to create this conundrum.
Todd Haley did have Edgerrin James on his offense in Arizona. James was a big back, not too dissimilar to Redman, but he was a more than capable receiver who forced defenses to respect his abilities as a receiver.
Isaac Redman simply possess that same ability as he is better served to be a pounding back in a play action offense. The Steelers no longer run that kind of offense as they transition towards a passing system focusing on Ben Roethlisberger and his talented receivers.
For years, Steelers fans had to endure Bruce Arians predictable play calling and bad situational play calling. If the Steelers are to avoid being a predictable offense under Haley, then a replacement for Rashard Mendenhall is needed.
Riding the bus is no longer an option for the Steelers\’ offense. The talent is angled towards a Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush opposed to a Jerome Bettis.
Looking at the bigger picture is the best way to put together a jigsaw, at the moment, there is an important piece missing for the Steelers\’ offensive jigsaw.
Isaac Redman is not that missing piece. He\’s still a part of the overall picture the team is trying to build, as a backup and goal-line carrier, he\’s just not as central as many believe.
You can follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf