The 2008 season will go down as one of the best in Steelers history. It was a year that had the perfect ending, but the journey to that point was far from ideal. We’ll take a position-by-position look at the season that was – both good and bad. To start, let’s examine the running backs.
We’ll be examining the seasons of FWP, Mewelde Moore, Rashard Mendenhall, and Gary Russell.
Fast Willie Parker
Regular Season: 210 carries, 791 yards, 5 TDs, 3.8 Y/A
Playoffs: 70 carries, 246 yards, 2 TD’s, 3.5 Y/A
2008 wasn’t very kind to FWP. After a stellar 2007 campaign that saw Parker only lose the rushing title to LaDanian Tomlinson because of a late season injury, things went downhill in a big way. Parker’s yard per attempt has dropped .3 yards a season every year since 2005 and injuries have been an issue the past two seasons as well. His best games this season came during week one and during the divisional playoff games, strangely enough. Parker missed 5 games in between those two performances and the Steelers went 2-3 during that stretch.
Given the downhill trend in production the past several seasons, questioning Parker’s future is legitimate. But there are plenty of other factors here to look at as well.
Obviously, the offensive line hasn’t performed well. More often than not, FWP is having to make a player or two miss before even reaching the line of scrimmage. Another thing to remember is that Bruce Arians has basically taken away the fullback from the offensive system. Parker has went on record saying that he doesn’t like the move. It’s not hard to tell that his running style greatly benefits from having a lead blocker since he simply isn’t powerful enough to make his own holes. Bill Cowher and Ken Whisenhunt’s system in 2005 and 2006 seemed to fit Parker best by utilizing Dan Kreider and getting the ball to FWP on screen passes. FWP only caught 3 passes this year, after having double digit totals the previous three seasons – including 31 grabs in 2006.
There’s no doubt that the clock has started ticking with FWP. Like most running backs, once they start nearing 30 years of age, things tend to get a lot tougher. Parker has taken a beating the past couple seasons with a huge number of carries and a porous offensive line. I feel like Pittsburgh fans never really embraced Parker for some reason, but when you look at the numbers he’s been an excellent running during his time in Pittsburgh. Prior to this season, he’s played Pro Bowl-caliber football. Having one down year due to the above mentioned factors isn’t a big deal. I’ll let it slide. Parker looked good late in the year and still seems to have the burst that made him such a special running back. But if 2009 starts off poorly, the sirens might be sounding to signal a flash in the pan.
Regular Season: 140 carries, 588 yards, 5 TD’s, 4.2 Y/A
40 catches, 320 yards, 1 TD
Playoffs: 5 carries, 25 yards, 0 TD, 5.0 Y/A
When the Steelers signed Moore to a three-year, $4.95 million contract in the offseason, a few eyebrows were raised – especially after the drafting of Rashard Mendenhall. But by the end of the season, Moore proved to be one of the best FA signings on the cheap, and helped carry the Steelers through a rash of RB injuries. Not a lot of 3rd down backs in the league are going to be able to come in any any situation and help the team.
But the best part about Mewelde’s game was his receiving. We know Bruce Arians is hot for putting receiving threats all over the field…he love the double TE sets and fullbacks that can catch. So maybe that had something to do with how many looks Mewelde got this season. But still….40 receptions for a backup running back! I had to check the stat sheet again and again to make sure that was correct. For comparisons sake, Heath Miller had 48 receptions and Nate Washington had 40 – the exact same as Mewelde. That has to be one of the more remarkable stats of the season for the Steelers.
Moore had a few gems during the regular season – he pretty much carried the offense in week five against Jacksonville and in week seven against Cincinatti. But the best performance of all had to have been week four in an overtime win against the Ravens. This is when we first really got to know Moore and his game. Here’s what I wrote during the recap of the OT thriller:
Mewelde Moore = MVP for tonight. Guy had to play both offense and defense on special teams…and he ended up being the starting halfback without a fullback for the last quarter. He made several clutch receptions on 3rd down and held on to the football. Sometimes it’s the little things that are the most important and Moore knew the playbook well, knew his assignments, and was productive. This guy is the 4th string running back and he stepped it up. Can’t say enough about his performance…
Nobody would have expected Moore to play as big of a role as he did, but in the NFL, depth is everything. Heading into the first Ravens game, Mewelede Moore was essentially the 4th string RB behind FWP, Mendenhall, and Carey Davis, who was getting carries over Moore until Davis got hurt in that game. It takes every man on the roster to put in their best effort and the Steelers got everything they asked for and Moore.
Regular Season: 19 carries, 58 yards, 0 TD, 3.1 Y/A
Norm and I were super excited to watch Mendenhall run this year. As a Penn State fan, I watched the kid play throughout his career and was pumped to see him don the black and gold. As he struggled to find his footing in week one against the Texans with 10 carries for 28 yards, little did we all know that game would be the best look we got at him all season. Ray Lewis crunched him in his first career start in week four against Baltimore. Whether or not that was due to a bounty, I guess we’ll never know.
It doesn’t really matter now.
The trouble is, we still don’t know how good Rashard Mendenhall is. The year off the field spent learning and watching might not be a bad thing. With the short yardage running game a mess, a big runner with a low center of gravity like Mendenhall is exactly what the Steelers need. Watching Chris Johnson and Matt Forte have great years makes me feel good about Mendenhall’s potential though. Remember, this is a guy who was the consensus top running back in last year’s draft. Dallas took Felix Jones ahead of him, but most had Mendenhall pegged as the best of the class. If he can be anywhere nearly as effective as Johnson or Forte was, we’ll be seeing a lot from him. But until he gets out on the field and proves it, nobody really knows who Rashard Mendenhall is and what role he will play.
Regular Season: 28 carries, 77 yards, 3 TD, 2.8 Y/A
Playoffs: 6 carries, 2 yards, 2 TD, 0.3 Y/A
For a disclaimer, I’ve always been a big Gary Russell fan. Like Mendenhall, I watched him play in the Big 10 at Minnesota and thought he was a great undrafted free agent signing. Russell was a beast for the Golden Gophers, but couldn’t make the grades and ended up leaving school, sitting out a year, and then entering the draft. He was an extremely cheap signing with a ton of upside for the Steelers.
After seeing only 7 carries last year, Tomlin gave Russell a shot at the short yardage role about halfway through this season and he didn’t do too bad. Granted, it’s not easy for anybody running with the Steelers offensive line against a defense selling out for the run, but Russell was efficient at it. Most of the time when he was stopped short, it was due to a lineman falling or getting ran over.
Russell’s biggest football came during the playoff stretch. 6 carries for 2 yards is a joke, but the 2 TD’s were both big time scores. During the Super Bowl, he scored on a 3rd and goal that was a monumental play at the time. The Steeler sucked all year at short yardage and pounding that one in helped set the tone for the game.
The problem I have is that Russell hasn’t received many looks in standard formations or on early downs. He’s nasty runner and I think he could be a productive all-around running back in the league. But he’s got three guys ahead of him who aren’t too bad either. In a way, he got thrown out there during the times when the line always seemed to be at their worst- short yardage. That had to get frustrating at times.
Still, this is another great example of the Steelers getting good value out of a player. Russell went from an undrafted free agent two years ago to scoring the first touchdown of Super Bowl XLIII. Not a bad story, eh?
As always, we’d love to hear your views. Did we get it right? What are your thoughts on the Steelers backfield in 2008? Who impressed you and why?