Posted May 14th 2008 7:36PM by JJ Cooper
Filed under: Steelers, AFC North, Pittsburgh
Back when the Jaguars were establishing themselves, it sometimes seemed like they were copying the Steelers. They emphasized line play and a power running game, they swiped away Steelers Pro Bowlers Leon Searcy and Carnell Lake in free agency, and seemingly every year they would snag a waived Steeler just before a key Jaguars-Steelers game.
Now Pittsburgh is returning the favor.
After watching the Jaguars' two-headed monster of a running game run over the Steelers three times in this past two years, the Steelers decided they needed a combo-pack of their own. The Steelers haven't added teal to the team colors of black and gold, but if everything goes right, Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker will give the Steelers a pair of backs like Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.
By drafting Mendehall, Pittsburgh not only has an effective backup to Willie Parker, they also have a back who hopefully will allow Parker to avoid the "stuffed for no gain" carries that have been as much a part of his career as the 40+-yard scamper.
The best case scenario for the Steelers is that the addition of Mendenhall will work just as adding Jones-Drew did for the Jaguars--by taking carries off of Fred Taylor, it ended up making him a better back. Taylor is bigger than Willie Parker, but both of them are big-play threats. In Taylor's case, adding Jones-Drew to take some of the pounding between the tackles has helped extend his career.
It's not like Taylor was washed up when the Jaguars drafted Jones-Drew, but it would have been hard to imagine that they would share the carries as effectively as they have.
Before Jones-Drew arrived, Taylor averaged around 290 carries a year, when he survived a full season--he'd missed at least two games in six of his first eight seasons. Now when he was healthy, he was usually one of the better backs in the league, but he's been better since Jones-Drew arrived. Taylor's carries per game have dropped from 18.4 to 15.2. His production, however, has barely diminished. He's rushed for more than 1,100 yards in each of the past two seasons, and has set career highs for yards per carry in each of the past two seasons.
When Parker farmed out the tough inside yards to Jerome Bettis in 2005, he averaged a sparkling 4.7 yards per carry. In the two years since as Parker's carries have gone up, he's watched his yards per carry dip to 4.4 (2006) and 4.1 (2007). Hopefully adding Mendenhall should get that trend headed back in the right direction in 2008.
Since Jones-Drew joined the team in 2006, Taylor has put together two of the best seasons of his career, even though he's on the wrong side of 30. He's topped 5.0 yards per carry in 2006 and 2007, something he had never done before, and he's still scoring just as many touchdowns as he did before Jones-Drew arrived.
Now Mendenhall can do the same thing for Parker. Parker may finish next season with a few less yards than he had in 2007, but he should be more productive on a per-carry basis. And hopefully it will add a couple of years to the end of his career as well.