Since Ben Roethlisberger was drafted, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been inching further and further away from the running game as the seasons have gone by. That is the natural reaction to finding your franchise quarterback.
The emphasis on the running game in Pittsburgh will always be palpable however. In his early years, Roethlisberger was able to rely on the tough running of Jerome Bettis before fast Willie Parker carried the load.
Even as the Steelers built around Roethlisberger, with an evolving receiving corps amongst other things, the running game remained a priority as Mike Tomlin spent one of his earliest first round draft picks on running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Mendenhall’s effectiveness was hampered by an anchored offensive line, but his talent was evident. While Mendenhall didn’t fit the historically accepted prototype of Steelers’ running backs, he had enough bulk and a willingness to run hard when beneficial to not detract too much from tradition.
With Mendenhall sidelined, the Steelers will have a back with a closer skill-set to Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris rather than Mendenhall or even Willie Parker. Isaac Redman is expected to receive the majority of the Steelers’ carries this year as Mendenhall returns from his torn ACL injury.
Redman is a hard nosed runner who has won over fans the past two seasons with his toughness. Last year he featured significantly as a short-yardage back before taking over the starting role in the playoffs.
With Redman behind Roethlisberger, the Steelers will have a strong runner to rely on once again.
However, in today’s NFL running-backs are expected to be as much an extension of the passing game as they are runners. Under Tomlin, the Steelers have always had a third down back who did became a piece of the passing game in Mewelde Moore.
Moore was not an explosive back, or even the most feared of route runners, but he was trusted as a blocker and could step in to carry the load if necessary. With a porous offensive line, the Steelers predominantly used Moore as a blocker out of necessity.
This year the Steelers don’t have Moore to be their third down back. This year Mewelde Moore is in Indianapolis playing with the Colts under former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. In Moore’s place, the Steelers appear to be going in a completely new direction.
Isaac Redman is not a third down back. He is an okay blocker, but lacks the consistency of Moore, and doesn’t threaten teams as a receiver coming out of the backfield enough to warrant being on the field in obvious passing situations.
With Baron Batch on the roster, the Steelers appeared to have the heir apparent to Moore entering training camp. Batch hasn’t distinguished himself however and rookie Chris Rainey was instead used on third down with the first team against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Even though the Steelers are completely changing their offensive scheme this year under new coordinator Todd Haley, Rainey could be the biggest difference between the offense this year opposed to last. While the Steelers have had speed in the backfield before, see “fast” Willie Parker, they have not had any player like Rainey in recent years.
When the rookie was drafted, it was unclear whether he would be labelled as a running-back or receiver for whatever team took him. Once he landed with Todd Haley however, the comparisons to Dexter McCluster began.
McCluster has split time between receiver and running-back throughout his three year career before becoming a receiver exclusively this year. Rainey is less likely to have such an ambiguous role for the Steelers.
He should be the team’s third-down back, even if he will change the recent ideals that have been attached to the position.
When asked why Rainey wasn’t involved in one-on-one blocking drills in training camp, Mike Tomlin replied that he doesn’t use his “Ferrari” to pull his boat. Rainey won’t play the same role as Mewelde Moore, even if he is filling his position. As a third down back, Rainey won’t be often asked to handle blitzers with other players and should never be looked to to block players one-on-one. That is something Moore did on a regular basis.
Instead, Rainey will be a massive threat coming out of the backfield with his speed. He appears to have similar speed to, if not greater than, Willie Parker but Parker was limited in space and wasn’t a natural receiver. With a special teams background, Rainey excels in space and is comfortable catching the ball.
In the past the Steelers would not have been able to incorporate Rainey because of their offensive line. Despite some early struggles from rookie left tackle Mike Adams, the Steelers offensive line should be vastly improved in pass protection once the regular season begins.
With that luxury, the Steelers can be a greater threat in screens, dump-offs and be able to move Rainey wide. While he is not going to be running over anyone, including defensive backs, his speed and dynamism should give the Steelers an edge in matchups. While Moore could conceivably be covered by a linebacker, there are no linebackers in the league who could stick with Rainey’s pace in space.
It’s not all positive however.
With Rainey in the backfield the Steelers have a back who can take advantage of space. If the Steelers offensive line cannot create space however, he will be swallowed up by bigger defenders. Also, if the line needs help and struggles to the same degree it has in recent times, then they will need help protecting Roethlisberger. Depending on the magnitude of the help required, Heath Miller and more may be forced into limited roles.
Chris Rainey has Steelers fans talking, while he won’t be the primary ball-carrier or replace Mendenhall. He does offer the team a clear path to continue the recent success of the third down-back in Pittsburgh.
That path is just a little narrower and swerves a lot more than the previous one.
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