The key to the Steelers success tonight is Mendenhall the Wrecking Ball, but not just his yards per carry. Mendenhall has to bring his A-blocking game to help provide protection to a battered Ben Roethlisberger so the Steelers can exploit the Ravens' depleted secondary.
One of the more overlooked aspects of a young running back's game is what he provides in pass protection. When Mike Tomlin evaluated his first overall pick in the 2008 draft, he mentioned his size (5-foot-10, 225 pounds), his speed (4.45 40-yard at the Combine) and the part that jumped out the most, he mentioned his ability and willingness to stand in and block.
Rookie running backs are usually not three-down players. It's not just the adjustment to the speed of the NFL game, and it's not just a lack of pass-catching skills. A lot of the time, it's a back's lack of ability to step into a blitzer and knock him flat on his butt.
Mendenhall was drafted by the Steelers because he's ready to do that right now. Any coach is going to be nervous putting a back in on a passing down if he can't handle the responsibility of being the last line of defense between a successful pass and a hit that brings in a back-up quarterback. It's even more true against a blitz-happy Baltimore team, bringing punishment with each snap.
Ravens' RB Willis McGahee was dogged early in his career for a lack of willingness to block. Since then, he's developed into one of the more physical blockers out of that position in the game. It's a guy Mendenhall could emulate.
Mendenhall had already been the team's third-down back in many situations through three games. RB Mewelde Moore is not the greatest blocker in the league, either, so it looks as if Mendenhall will go all three downs in tonight's game. He can expect the Ravens to come after he and Roethlisberger through land, air and sea all night.
This isn't a bold statement. The two games between the Ravens and Steelers each year mostly have a lack of ground success in common. Don't expect any back in this game to have many outstanding rushes, but the one key advantage the Steelers have is that Ravens CB Samari Rolle and S Dawan Landry are out with injuries. If Roethlisberger has the time to throw, and WRs Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington - Pittsburgh's bes two deep threats - and Hines Ward are able to get more than two seconds to get open (unlike Week 3), the Steelers could put up a nice number on the scoreboard.
If not, or if Mendenhall is not able to step up and stone a few guys cold, this could turn into a 10-10 gridlock match that does not favor the Steelers. And right about now is when people are really starting to wonder if Roethlisberger is even going to last to the bye week.
Mendenhall isn't going to rush for 150 yards in his career debut, but he'll become a favored player in Pittsburgh if he can help keep Roethlisberger's jersey mostly clean - especially on third downs, where the Ravens are holding teams to a microscopic 19 percent conversion percentage.
Labels: Steelers Key Player