The Steelers are Concerned about the Health of Their Running Game

The Steelers are concerned about the state of their rushing attack.

Two summers ago the Watch Tower lampooned PG Plus for covering the supposed death and resurrection of the Steelers running game – all in the span of a week.

  • This is different. 

The Steelers decision to activate Rashard Mendenhall from the PUP reveals that Steelers Nation now as legitimate cause for concern.

Mendenhall’s Surprise Activation

News that Casey Hampton and Rashard Mendenhall were coming off the PUP took Steelers Nation by surprise late Friday afternoon.

Fellow scribe and friend Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure, I also write occasionally for BTSC) wrote glowingly of the move:

Mendenhall’s impressive rehabilitation time gives the Steelers a formidable ground attack, assuming there is nothing significantly wrong with Redman, who was slated to be the team’s featured running back. The ground game looks to carry with it a more prominent role this season, and this could be the kind of new-but-not-new addition could be a big pick-up.

But Neal’s reaction was the exception, not the rule. Ed Bouchette went at great pains to provide his readers with recent quotes from Steelers officials who all but indicated that Mendenhall was certain to start 2012 on the PUP.

My first reaction was “surprise” followed by “they must be desperate.”

Redman’s Injury More Serious Than Known?

Why would the Steelers be so desperate as to make a drastic move – bring a player back, any player but especially a running back, too early form an ACL, and you jeopardize his career?

  • Such a move is totally out of character for the Steelers. 

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert don’t make personnel decisions scared.

So what could prompt them to go back on everything they’d said about their plans for Mendenhall?

Isaac Redman began training camp with pain in his groin. He didn’t say anything about it, practiced and played like normal, until he was brought to his knees in practice.

Neither Ed Bouchette nor Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette seemed overly concerned in their evening video from training camp, but in reporting that Redman was going to have an MRI, they noted that Steelers coaches wanted to rule out that Redman might have a groin injury similar to the one Jerome Bettis had.

Jerome Bettis was on course to have a record setting rushing season in 2001 when a groin injury in week 11essentially cost him the rest of the season.

At this point Alan Robinson of the Tribune Review picked up the thread, informing us that:

Running back Isaac Redman, chastised by coach Mike Tomlin for revealing he would have an MRI on his injured groin, said the test revealed Thursday exactly what the Steelers’ athletic trainers thought it would. Only he didn’t say what that was. And Tomlin wouldn’t even acknowledge that Redman had the exam.

So…

  • On Wednesday Bouchette and Dulac report that the Steelers are concerned Redman might have a Bettis-like groin injury
  • Robinson reports on Thursday that Redman’s MRI revealed what the trainers expected it would
  • Mike Tomlin doesn’t want anyone talking about it
  • And the next day the Steelers surprise everyone and activate Mendenhall.

I hope I am wrong on this, but the logical conclusion is that Redman’s injury is somewhat serious.

[8/23 – Editor’s Note:  Dale Lolley has since revealed that Redman’s injury is hip and not groin related and that he did in fact return to practice on Tuesday. Still concern about his status is legitimate.]

The Steelers Won’t Rush Rashard Back But….

None of this means that the Steelers will rush Mendenhall back to the field before he’s ready.

Dale Lolley pointed out that in sheer practical terms, it is a lot easier to get a player into game shape in training camp than in the week-to-week practices. Matt Loede from Steelers Gab got Kevin Colbert on the record confirming Lolley’s hypothesis.

Fair enough.

  • But it’s likely that there’s also a parallel motive at work. 

Had Mendenhall began the season on the PUP list, he would have had to stay there for at least 6 weeks. Activating him now removes that restriction, at the cost of a roster spot.

Lingering injuries to James Harrison, Jason Worilds, and Stevenson Sylvester put roster spots at a premium now for the Steelers.

The Steelers won’t rush Mendenhall into the line up in September, before he’s ready, but the fact that they’ve activated him now signals that they are concerned that it might not be a case of wanting to use Mendenhall in weeks 5 or 6 but rather a case of needing to use Mendenhall then.

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Mike Wallace’s Return to Steelers Imminent

The Pittsburgh Steelers returned to their South Side complex today after three plus weeks in Latrobe. But as despite the change of venue, a familiar face remained missing, in the form of Mike Wallace.

That, however, is about to change.

Early in the day multiple sources reported that Mike Wallace was due back with the Steelers with an expected ETA of some time after the Steelers third preseason game this Saturday vs. the Bills.

Alan Robinson of the Tribune Review is breaking from the pack suggesting that the Wallace watch could be over in a matter of hours not days.

Welcome Back Wallace

Robinson’s reporting makes it crystal clear that Wallace will be welcomed by his team mates with open arms.   That bodes well for the Steelers locker room chemistry, although when asked where Wallace would fit into the Steelers offense, in the short term, Mike Tomlin stuck to his “When he gets here, let’s wait and see” attitude.

To participate in team drills Wallace would have to sign his tender, which all reports indicate he will do. Whether he attempts to open negotiations towards a long term deal are another question.

A headline under Ed Bouchette’s PG Plus byline indicated that Wallace did not have a chance at getting a long term deal — I cannot access that because PG Plus still refuses to take my money (that’s right, the newspaper industry’s on its knees, but PG Plus will not let me give them my money, click here and scroll down for the full story.)

However, Bouchette’s conclusion is logical. The Steelers reportedly gave a contract similar to what they were offering Wallace to Antonio Brown, and a deal would have to be concluded before the regular season, which does not leave much time to negotiate.

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Falling Like Flies: Steelers Lose Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester

The good news from the Steelers 26-24 preseason victory over the Colts is that the Black and Gold escaped with no new injuries.

The bad news is that Pittsburgh lost another player for an extended period of time before the game. Reserve linebacker Stevenson Sylvester injured his MCL in the final play of the final Steelers training camp practice at St. Vincent’s in Latrobe.

Sylvester’s injury is expected to keep him out 3-4 weeks, which to these ears sounds like a conservative estimate given the nature of ligament injuries.

Sylvester’s snaps will be taken up by Brandon Johnson, a veteran journeyman linebacker the Steelers signed in June mainly as an insurance policy.

The Steelers are ailing at linebacker, with James Harrison’s knee surgery putting his status for the season opener in doubt and Jason Worilds also out on the PUP list, with no timetable set for his return.

After parting ways with James Farrior, Kevin Colbert all but ruled out the possibility of bringing Farrior back should disaster strike. The words he used with Ed Bouchette were akin to “you never want to say ‘never’ but….”

You have to wonder how much further depleted the Steelers linebacking corps can become before Colbert begins thinking its “never say never time.”

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Steelers Eek Out Preseason Win vs. Colts

The Pittsburgh Steelers improved their preseason record to 1-1 by scoring a late field goal to beat the Indianapolis Colts 26-24. While Andrew Luck lived up to his name sake in his second outing, the Steelers defense did something it almost never did in 2011 – intercepted passes.

Ike Taylor intercepted an Andrew Luck pass and returned it 49 yards to put the Steelers up 14-0. The Steelers had scored earlier when Antonio Brown took a short pass from Ben Roethlisberger and weaved his way through blocks provided by Leonard Pope, Heath Miller, and rookie Barron Batch.

All eyes tonight were on the Steelers running game. Jonathan Dwyer looked good as a starter, while Barron Batch continued to struggle, at least on the stat sheet. Rookie Chris Rainey also had a tougher time of it, if his numbers are any guide.

5th Receiver Emerges?

While most of the attention in preseason has focused on Mike Wallace’s absence and Antonio Brown’s contract, beneath the surface there’s been a struggle to define who’ll claim the Steelers 5th wide out spot.

Mike Tomlin has been fairly frank in expressing his disappointment that no one has separated himself from the back.

That may have changed tonight.

David Gilreath led the team with 4 catches for 78 yards. Granted, he was not playing vs. the Colts starters, but his production was impressive nonetheless.

This is Gilreath’s fourth shot at NFL glory, having spent time on various practice squads. That should not be held against him – sometimes players need to bounce around for a while before getting their footing – James Harrison certainly did.

Time will tell if Gilreath can follow a similar path.

Suisham Threatened?

The pundits keep insisting that Shaun Suisham is favored to make the team. But rookie Danny Harpmann is giving him a run for his money, having finished the night at 4-4 on field goal kicks, including ones of 39 and 43 yards and another that was partially blocked.

Suisham’s play hasn’t been stellar, the outing in 2010 vs. Buffalo withstanding, and and upgrade at place kicker would be welcome.

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Steelers Move Casey Hampton and Rashard Mendenhall off the PUP List

The Pittsburgh Steelers made two personnel moves today, one expected the other a surprise. They moved starting nose tackle Casey Hampton from the physically unable to preform list (PUP). This was expected, as the Steelers expect Hampton to be ready to play early in the season if not for the season opener.

Rashard Mendenhall also came off the PUP list, which is a surprise.

The Steelers had been saying all along that they expected Mendenhall to stay on the PUP list until at least week six of the upcoming season. The fact that he’s coming off now does not speak well for how the Steelers see their situation at running back, which finds Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer both nursing injuries.

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What Ike Taylor and Antonio Brown’s Fisticuffs Teach Us

Fights between team mates are staples of NFL summers. Usually they’re open-an-shut affairs which do little more than provide some eye candy for the evening news highlight reels.

But when do training camp fights cross the line?

Steelers Nation asked itself that question recently as repeated scuffles between Antonio Brown and Ike Taylor got so bad that Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert had to help separate them.

The short answer to the question is that Steelers fans probably have little to worry about, but the incidents do reveal something about the team.

Fights and Fisticuffs From Days Gone By….

Rookies frequently find themselves as the instigators of training camp slugfests. It makes sense.

Young, cocky (or desperate) prospect in from college seeks to make name for himself at the expense of a someone else.

In the early 1990’s either Brensten Buckner or Joel Steed (can’t remember which) had just that idea. Might have worked, except they chose to pick a fight with 5 time NCAA wrestling champion Carlton Haselrig.

Suffice to say, Haselrig got the bitter of that exchange.

Veterans do mix it up however. A few years back in the Steelers Digest Craig Wolfley wrote about an intense duel he got into with Edmund Nelson in the 1980’s.

But as Wolfley explained, after practice he found himself trudging up the hill to the locker room and found himself talking with another player about how Noll had put him through the wringer that day. It wasn’t until he got to the top of the hill that he realized that he’d been walking along side Nelson.

The moral of Wolfley’s story was clear – fights break out, but everything gets left behind on the gridiron….

Richard Huntley vs. Earl Holmes

….Except when it doesn’t.

The last newsworthy fight for the Steelers came during minicamp in the spring of 2000. Fisticuffs erupted between Richard Huntley and Earl Holmes on the practice field.

After practice Huntley was assuring writers that by-gones were already by-gones when Earl Holmes broke into the locker room and a melee erupted. Chairs were swung and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala even got a black eye after being inadvertently hit.

That incident was far out of the ordinary, and considering just how badly things had come unglued at the end of the 1999 season, there was cause for concern.

Even Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest commented something on the order of “Whether this represents a rekindling of the competitive fire or a further erosion of discipline remain to be seen.”

If that fight was indicative of anything at the end of the day it was the former rather than the later.

And that’s most likely the meaning we can take from the three round installment of Taylor vs. Brown.

What Taylor vs. Brown Teaches Us

Mark Kaboly of the Tribune-Review argues that both the frequency and ferocity of the fights has risen to an abnormally high level his summer in Latrobe. The gash that Ike Taylor suffered under his right eye is a strong indicates that Kabloy is on to something.

But if he has taken notice, so have others, others who can do something about it. As Kabloy reported, Ryan Clark and Ben Roethlisberger intervened, making a point of speaking with both men.

And by all accounts, it worked. Brown and Taylor shared breakfast together on the South Side and Taylor even invited Brown to his radio show.

While Brown and Taylor kissing and making up is well and good, what’s more important is they were prompted to do so from elsewhere in the locker room.

When you put 53 men together in the pressure cooker that is the NFL regular season, personality conflicts will arise. Unlike training camp, most of them will occur out of the public eye.

What the Taylor-Brown incident reveals however, is that even absent players like Hines Ward, James Farrior, and Aaron Smith, the Steelers have the locker room leadership necessary head such problems off at the pass, before they can contaminate the club house.

For a training camp that’s thus far been defined by hold outs and injuries, this certainly counts as a piece of good news.

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James Harrison Goes Under the Knife, Isaac Redman Goes Down with Groin Injury

While its perhaps too early to say that the injury situation in Latrobe has become “critical” for the Steelers, clearly they are an issue.

In the last week the Steelers have placed David Johnson and John Clay on the injured/waived list. Neither of whom figured to be a key player for the Steelers in 2012, although the Steelers had planned to use David Johnson as their first starting fullback since 2006.

The news out of St. Vincients yesterday was far more critical.

Starting outside linebacker and former defensive player of the year James Harrison had surgery to relive swelling under his knee cap. While the surgery is minor and is intended to ward off any prolonged problem, James Harrison’s status for the September 9th opener at Denver is now doubt.

Harrison’s knee surgery wasn’t the only new item on the injury blotter.

Starting running back Isaac Redman, who apparently had been bothered by groin pains since the beginning of camp, had to leave practice early. The Redman will undergo an MRI today to diagonise the extent of his injury.

With Jonathan Dwyer injuring his shoulder in training camp, Rashard Mendenhall still on the PUP, the Steelers top running backs are Barron Batch and 5th round pick Chris Rainy….

….Say an extra decade on your Roseary for Redman’s MRI to reveal nothing of consequence.

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Steelers Activate Max Starks, Waive John Clay

The Steelers are only one game into the 2012 preseason campaign, yet they remain active on the personnel front.  Only one day after placing David Johnson on the waived/injured list, the Steelers followed suit with John Clay.

According to the Post-Gazette, Clay had injured his hip and groin in practice after the game, and the Steelers apparently thought they needed a healthy body in camp so they replaced him with John Ford.

Should no team claim Clay, and none is likely to, his rights will revert back to the Steelers.

If fate should have it that John Clay’s time as a Pittsburgh Steeler is over, he always memory of taking his first NFL carry for 10 yards AND a touchdown in the Steelers late season shut out of the St. Louis Rams last year.

Max Starks Returns (Again)

The Steelers also took Max Starks off of the Physically Unable to Preform list, which will allow him to practice with the team. Starks had been recuprerating from the ACL tear he suffered in the playoffs vs. Denver.

While the Steelers had planned to activate Starks at some point in mid-August, his presence is needed on the offensive line, where injuries are already forcing roster shuffling, with Marcus Gilbert getting work at left tackle and Ramon Foster getting work at right tackle.

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Steelers Waive David Johnson, Sign Justin Peelle

What a week for David Johnson. Seven days ago Johnson was the first Mike Tomlin-era Pittsburgh Steeler to hold the title of “full back.” Today, after tearing his ACL in the Steelers preseason opener at Philadelphia, Johnson finds himself out on the street unemployed.

Well, perhaps that’s a tad bit over dramatic, but the Steelers did place David Johnson on the injured/waived list.  As clarified by Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain, the move allows another team to sign Johnson. If no one opts to pick him up, his rights revert to the Steelers.

In all likelihood that is exactly what will happen, for whatever it is worth. Johnson is done for the year and will become a free agent next year, giving another team little incentive in signing him.

The Steelers likely took this step, in lieu of simply putting Johnson on injuries reserve for salary cap reasons, although I remain unaware of the Steelers obligations to Johnson since he did sign his 1.2 million dollar restricted free agent tender this spring.

To take Johnson’s place on the roster, the Steelers signed veteran Justin Peelle, who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 2002, and has played in San Francisco, Miami, and most recently Atlanta.

The Steelers of course still have veterans Heath MillerLeonard Pope, and Weslye Saunders on their roster, in addition to Jamie McCoy, who they picked up in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL draft.

All of these players, including Justin Peelle, are primarily or exclusively tight ends. The only pure fullback on the Steelers roster is rookie free agent Will Johnson.

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Thoughts on David Johnson’s ACL Tear

David Johnson entered 2012 training camp with an interesting tale to tell. He’s a pure Tomlin-era player, drafted as a tight end by the Steelers with their final pick in the 2009 NFL draft. But Johnson’s first action in the NFL came at full back, where he saw spot duty during his rookie campaign.

Johnson entered 2010 on the bubble, as almost any 7th round pick would, but assured himself a roster spot with his continued development.

The Steelers faith in him paid off on opening day when Johnson took on two blockers to pave the way Rashard Mendenhall’s thrilling 50 yard overtime touchdown vs. the Falcons. (Available as of 8/10/12):

After Johnson’s role with the team grew.

In December of 2010 Johnson had his biggest game in Baltimore vs. the Ravens. Matt Speath was out with an injury and during the game the Steelers lost Heath Miller would after a vicious concussion leaving Johnson as the team’s lone tight end.

Johnson rose to the occasion, catching three passes including a key 25 yard completion, earning him Unsung Hero honors for the week.

One of Todd Haley’s first official moves was to reinstate the fullback into the Steelers offense, and Johnson was tapped to take that role, although Mike Tomlin clarified a week ago that he’d also be playing some tight end.

In short, David Johnson had a tremendous opportunity in front of him heading into 2012, and that is all for naught as report indicate that he injured his ACL when Marcus Gilbert rolled over him in the Steelers preseason opener vs. Philadelphia.

The Steelers are almost certain to put Johnson on IR, ending his season, and ending his shot and proving himself worthy of a big payday in free agency. Steel Curtain Rising wishes David Johnson the best of luck in his recovery.

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