Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall chatted with the media earlier today and had a chance to discuss his thoughts to some extent on the 49ers stout rush defense (Audio). Although the Steelers of the recent past were considered a power rushing team with guys like Jerome Bettis, they have become more of a passing team in recent years.
Rashard Mendenhall is a solid running back, but he has struggled a bit this season and is on pace for fewer than 1,000 yards rushing. He is averaging 3.8 yards per carry, which is down from his 3.9 last year and 4.6 the year before. He had a career high in rushing yards last season, but that was due more to getting a ton of carries. In spite of his questionable yards per carry the last couple seasons, he remains a significant presence inside the red zone. Last season he rushed for 13 touchdowns and this year he has eight touchdowns. He has benefitted to a great extent from big plays in the passing game setting the Steelers up down close.
The 49ers have to handle their business in stopping Mendenhall, but containing Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown is a much bigger issue. There are no guarantees each week, but the 49ers rush defense really has been pretty insane this season. The 49ers are actually second in adjusted line yards, but they are far and away the leader in the basic yards per carry category, giving up 3.16 yards per carry.
It is worth noting that Isaac Redman received six carries this past week against the Browns. Mendenhall had a solid yards per carry (4.2) but he struggled mightily down in the red zone in punching the ball in. The Steelers will look to their big passing attack, but if Roethlisberger is limited or out, it will be interesting to see how much they try and force the situation with their ground game. A team cannot completely abandon the rushing attack no matter how much it struggles, particularly if they have a gimpy quarterback.
One big reason the 49ers have held running backs under 100 yards is their ability to prevent too many long runs. They have given up double digit yardage runs in eight of their 13 games, but generally have done an impressive job containing the opposition. Here is a quick look at the top rushes by running backs against the 49ers this season
Week 1: Obomanu - 13; Lynch - 12
Week 2: Murray - 8; Choice/Jones - 5
Week 3: Benson - 10; Scott - 8
Week 4: Brown - 15; McCoy - 5
Week 5: Blount - 9; Graham - 8
Week 6: Best - 13; Morris - 11
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Ogbonnaya - 7; Hardesty - 5
Week 9: Helu - 16
Week 10: Jacobs - 15; Ware - 7
Week 11: Taylor - 34 (one rush on the day); Wells - 9
Week 12: Ricky Williams - 12; Rice - 10
Week 13: Jackson - 9; Norwood - 5
Week 14: Wells - 8; Stephens-Howling - 5
Mendenhall could bust off a big gainer, but the biggest remaining test is Marshawn Lynch. The 49ers contained him in the season opener, but #BeastMode is on fire the last few weeks, bouncing off defenders like a pinball. But before the 49ers can get to that matchup they need to handle their business on Monday against Rashard Mendenhall.