Whereas Aaron Smith's injury led to the collapse of the Steelers' defense in 2007, the team has survived injuries to defensive end Brett Keisel, nose guard Casey Hampton, cornerback Deshea Townsend, left tackle Marvel Smith, right guard Kendall Simmons and tailbacks Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall this year without missing a beat.
Along the way, Towsend-replacement Bryant McFadden has shown that he's matured and deserves a starting job. Simmons' replacement, Darnell Stapleton, has left us all wondering why Simmons makes more than $6 million a year; and Nick Eason, Chris Hoke and Travis Kirschke have helped remove some of the concerns about the Steelers' defensive line depth.
But the biggest revelation has been at tailback, where Mewelde Moore has shown that he has to play a larger role in the offense even when Willie Parker returns.In his two starts, Moore has rushed for 219 yards on 37 carries. He's shown big-play ability (eight of his 37 carries have gone for 10 yards or more), a nose for the end zone (three touchdowns) and solid durability. And since he's the Steelers best pass-catching running back, he also gives Pittsburgh the flexibility to go from a three-receiver, one-back offense to a five-receiver formation (with Moore and tight end Heath Miller split out) without making any personnel changes. That flexibility caught the Bengals in some difficult situations when Pittsburgh went to the no-huddle.
Parker will likely be back soon, but it seems wise to use Moore like the Steelers had planned to use Mendenhall when they drafted him--get Parker 15-to-20 carries a game, but give Moore a solid 10-12 as well. As we showed before his first start, whenever Moore has gotten playing time throughout his five-year career, he's produced. Here's an updated chart of how he's performed when he gets at least 15 carries. Now do remember that Moore's starts are few and far between.
We have to see if Moore can keep this up -- two games is not a season. But if he can sustain this kind of production over the rest of the season, it does bring up a big question for 2009. Moore is signed for another two years, while Mendenhall will be coming back next year. If Moore is a productive No. 2 tailback and the team's third-down back, then what role is left for Mendenhall?
It's too soon to say that Mendenhall could become trade bait, and this year is proof that it helps to have three solid tailbacks. But I'd hate to see Moore lose carries just because Mendenhall was a first-round pick.