One of the big storylines following the 2008 NFL Draft was the Steelers' selection of running back Rashard Mendenhall with a first-round pick, this on the heels of Willie Parker nearly leading the NFL in rushing yards in 2007. At the time, speculation ran wild with how the Steelers would incorporate Mendenhall into the offense, but we knew we had to wait until training camp was in full swing before the details would be unveiled.
The man at the helm of the Steelers offense is Bruce Arians, an experienced NFL play caller who was one of Peyton Manning's first position coaches and the brains behind the Steelers' aggressive red-zone pass attack last season -- the one that resulted in Ben Roethlisberger's career-best 32 touchdowns. If anyone was going to lay out the plan for Parker and Mendenhall, it would be Arians.
The Steelers' offensive coordinator also touched on what's in store for rookie receiver Limas Sweed, impressive third-year receiver Santonio Holmes and broke some news on another running back that will work with Parker and Mendenhall.
We were surprised when the Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall in April, and we assume it's safe to still call Willie Parker the primary running back to start the year. At the same time, we couldn't help but notice his 1.8 yards per carry average in the red zone in 2007. Was that part of the motivation for adding a running back this offseason?
Arians: There were a lot of reasons. I've always been a two-running back guy; when I was the running backs coach at Kansas City when we had Christian Okoye and Barry Word. I don't know if you could ever have enough good running backs because of what happened to Willie. And there's a certain number of carries before you're going to see a decline of some kind or an injury. When Rashard fell in the draft, it was kind of like, 'whoa.' He brought a size factor, a speed factor and he had great hands, so we felt like he was a very capable, ready-to-go guy. I love Willie Parker, and he's our guy, but there are times in games where you'd rather have a bigger guy do some things. Hopefully Rashard will be able to do that for us.
How does Mendenhall look so far in training camp?
Arians: I've been real pleased with him. He came in in great shape. He's attentive, he follows Willie around. We have a great history here of our veterans taking care of the rookies at their positions. Jerome Bettis set a great standard here. So Willie's coaching as hard as (Steelers running backs coach) Kirby Wilson is.
When the offense was in the red zone last year, you put the ball in Ben Roethlisberger's hands and not Willie's. Parker had one touchdown from inside the 10 last season, and we've already mentioned his poor average inside the red zone. Is that something you see continuing this year, or has the red-zone mindset changed heading into 2008?
Arians: I think what happened is, unlike some teams, we get eight-man fronts in the red zone. And that explains Willie's yardage, they gang up on us and not let us pound it in there. And maybe it was a lack of respect last year of Ben and the receivers, so it was much easier for us to throw it in. We'll see how they want to play us this year. We feel like we have the capability of doing either one, and I don't care how we score as long as we score.
I would imagine the draw play will find its way into your red-zone playbook after last year.
Arians: "Yeah. It's been there. You know, Willie's a good power back, too. He's a small stature guy, but he'll pound it up in there. He can put it in at the goal line."
What did you like about Mewelde Moore, and what do you see him doing for you?
Arians: He's a quality veteran who will probably start the season out as our third-down back. He's a good pass protector, good route runner, has good hands and a solid presence in the locker room.
We feel like we've got some good crossover guys. Carey Davis is a fullback and a good runner too with great hands. Willie can play on third downs and has worked out on his hands. We'll see how Rashard's role goes as the season goes; we don't want to throw him into the fire too soon and have something bad happen to him. Anyway, Mewelde is our third-down guy, and I like him.
|Willie Parker has plenty of competition in the Pittsburgh backfield in 2008. (US Presswire)|
Arians: The change-of-pace guy that when you take your starter out, your Pro-Bowl runner out, you're putting in the same quality guy. You don't lose expectations of what you're trying to do. If your backup guy is not the same (type of player as your starter), you might throw it too much. Mendenhall will give us the ability to keep doing what we're doing. He might work as our goal-line runner if he shows the vision and patience for that. And he'll kill the clock at the end of the game, where we were great in September and October, had a couple of injuries, and then we didn't do a very good job of it in a couple of losses where we had the ball in the last three minutes and we gave it back to the other team, which has never been our M.O. We've always been able to run out the clock. He should have fresh legs at that point in the game.
So much has been made of your offensive line, and our impression is that there's been an overreaction to left guard Alan Faneca leaving. You guys seem to still have a capable offensive line. How optimistic are you that your O-line will be fine, and have they exceeded expectations in camp?
Arians: I've been real pleased. I was disappointed when Chris Kemoeatu couldn't start camp on time because I have all the confidence in the world in him and he hasn't been able to (practice) yet. But it's given us the ability to train Trai Essex as a guard, and he's playing real well. So he gives us left tackle and left guard capability. We have a nice little battle going on at center. We've got a Super Bowl tackle trying to get back into the lineup in Max Starks, and I like our young rookie, Tony Hills. Marvel Smith looks healthy. I like the competition because I think it breeds more success than guys who are complacent.
How much more of the no-huddle offense can we expect to see this season?
Arians: We used it a bunch last year. I felt like we were one of the top four or five teams in the league in no-huddle. It's just expanding it, how we want to expand it. We have the ability to use two or three personnel groups in a no-huddle situation, whether it be a fast-break no-huddle or a speed-up-the-game no-huddle. And Ben likes to play in that style, so it's something we just continue to improve.
We all know what Hines Ward can bring to the table, so let's talk about Limas Sweed. You must have loved seeing him fall into your lap in the draft. He seems like the kind of receiver you can bring along slowly because of the talent ahead of him and just use him in certain situations.
Arians: There's no doubt. We were shocked he fell to us. While it was not a great need for us, when you get quality skill players like this who you don't have to throw into the fire, it's great.
This kid is like a puppy dog following Hines Ward around. When he left practice with a cramp, I told him that it looks like he got shot and he said, 'Aw, man, Hines is gonna kill me. Does it look bad?' And he gives that kind of reaction because Hines gets respect in that locker room. Sweed is a great young talent that doesn't have to be thrown into the fire. He's gonna be real good, in time.
Assuming everyone stays healthy, what do you see Sweed doing this year? Could he also work in the red zone and use his big frame to create mismatches?
Arians: Yes and no. Right now, he's got a chance to be No. 4. There's still a good battle there with Dallas Baker and Willie Reid, two young kids who have been fighting it out. We'll see how that shakes out as he gets more opportunities to play with Ben. He hasn't gotten out there with Ben a whole lot yet because he's working his way up and earning his due.
The other day, he did catch the winning two-minute fade from Charlie (Batch) when he jumped on top of another guy and caught it. So that opened everybody's eyes. We liked that.
Did Ben see it?
Arians: Oh yeah. He liked it, too.
When did you know that Santonio Holmes was going to have a big year last season?
Arians: In the spring. He missed all of the OTAs his rookie year coming out of Ohio State because they're a quarter-system school. So he and I spent a week in the summer trying to teach him the offense by himself. Then he got to camp and was so far behind, and as that season progressed, you saw what was there. Then last spring, he blossomed. He formed a nice rapport with Ben, and we had that guy who could really stretch the field. Now he's become more than just a home-run hitter. He's a chain-mover also. He's really studying the underneath options and choices rather than just using his speed all the time. He's becoming better and better.
Will Holmes see even more work this year?
Arians: He should. Keep him healthy, and I think he could have a real breakout year.
Funny you should say breakout. I've asked a lot of coaches about the famous Fantasy Football theory that most receivers come into their own and have a big year in their third NFL season. Sometimes that can equate to their 75th to 100th reception, based on their football experience. The game seems to get easier for them around those times. Have you seen something similar to that over the course of your career?
Arians: Oh, totally. The game slows down and they start to understand coverage. They've seen enough coverage that they should have a good understanding of where to be and what the quarterback is looking for. It takes that much time to build rapport with a quarterback. Either they've started to taste success and they're hungry, or they've failed and are really, really hungry to make the team. Some catch on sooner obviously, but around that 75th catch, I'd say that's a good barometer on having gotten to a level where the game slows down for you.
And just to do some due diligence on behalf of our dynasty league owners, could you tell me about how rookie quarterback Dennis Dixon has looked early on?
Arians: I've been real pleased. Dennis is a very conscientious, hard-working kid who has been hurt in his development by the style of offense he played in. They're great in college, but when those fast quarterbacks come out against fast defenses, they don't get to run anymore. It's just a matter of calling plays, taking snaps from center and handing them off, typical fundamentals that a lot of these kids coming out of spread offenses never do. We had a kid, Omar Jacobs, a couple of years ago who may have never called a play in the huddle. A coach would signal the play in from the sideline, and he'd never use a snap count, it was a silent count. Just the minute details of playing quarterback. Dennis has worked extremely hard. He's got a real good arm, he needs to continue to work on his accuracy when he has to slide in the pocket. I think this kid is a heck of a talent. It's gonna take some time.