By Chris Burke
January 4, 2012
John Clay #38 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs in for a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams in the first half during the Christmas Eve game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Before Jan. 9, 2011, few NFL fans outside of Green Bay could have told you who James Starks was. A virtual unknown rookie out of the University of Buffalo, Starks carried the ball just 29 times during his first regular season — 18 of those touches coming in a Week 13 win over San Francisco.
But then that January day rolled around and, with the sixth-seeded Packers visiting Philadelphia in a wild-card round playoff game, Starks made a name for himself. He ran 23 times for 123 yards against the Eagles, which helped Green Bay pull off a road upset and sparked a Super Bowl run. Over the Pack’s march to a title, Starks would attempt 81 rushes, pick up 315 yards and score once.
Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson and the Packers’ superstars received many of the accolades, but it’s hard to imagine that team getting past Philadelphia, let alone running the table, without Starks’ emergence.
One year later, Pittsburgh, the team Green Bay beat in the 2011 Super Bowl, finds itself in need of a similar diamond-in-the-rough story.
That’s because No. 1 running back Rashard Mendenhall, he of 3,000-plus rushing yards over the past three seasons, tore his ACL in what wound up being a meaningless Week 17 game in Cleveland. Now the Steelers hope someone else can step in the backfield for Sunday’s game in Denver.
The three options: Isaac Redman, Mewelde Moore and John Clay.
Redman will get the first crack at replacing Mendenhall, despite two fumbles against the Browns. He had 110 carries for 479 yards this season and proved capable of spelling Mendenhall in spurts.
Moore, meanwhile, has been dealing with a knee injury since Week 15 and the eighth-year back did not play in either of the Steelers’ final two games.
And then there’s Clay.
If there’s an unofficial nominee to be this year’s Starks, it might be the rookie out of Wisconsin. Clay was relegated to Pittsburgh’s practice squad until Dec. 23, when the team signed him to its active roster. He paid immediate dividends, scoring a touchdown on his first career carry. Clay then jumped in against Cleveland, with Redman yanked following his two fumbles, and picked up 31 yards on nine carries.
Clay had rushed for more than 3,400 yards at Wisconsin, but went undrafted last April because of questions about his conditioning and speed.
He’s never going to be a burner, but the weight issues appear to be under control, and a motivated Clay could be a huge weapon for Pittsburgh. At 6-foot-1 and 248 pounds, he has the potential to be a bruising, between-the-tackles runner at the NFL level — precisely the type of back that comes in handy in January and February.
At the very least, Clay should provide a solid source of depth for the Pittsburgh backfield. Redman will enter the wild-card round as the Steelers’ No. 1 back, with Moore (assuming he can play) penciled in for his usual role as a third-down player.
Pittsburgh, like the Packers last year, will not be running the ball 50 times a game. The ground attack, though, is critical to the Steelers’ hopes of balancing out their offense and keeping some heat off Ben Roethlisberger.
Maybe Redman delivers the type of performance Pittsburgh needs. We saw during the 2011 playoff season, however, when Packers coach Mike McCarthy rode what he called the “hot hand” in Starks, how quickly plans can change.
Clay may have spent 15 weeks of the regular season on the practice squad, but he might wind up being just what the Steelers need with Mendenhall on the sideline.