PITTSBURGH — Isaac Redman knew the odds heading into his first training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009. He didn't like them a bit.
Rookie free agents from places like Bowie State typically don't stick around for long, and Redman knew it.
"The only thing I kept saying when I first got here was as long as they don't cut me before I put the shoulder pads on, I should be fine," he said.
Three seasons later, Redman knows he needs to be more than that if the Steelers want to reach a record ninth Super Bowl. With starter Rashard Mendenhall out for the postseason with a torn ACL in his right knee, the defending AFC champions will turn to a player who tries to make up for in ferocity what he lacks in finesse.
That's fine by Redman, who understands at 27, this may be his best — and perhaps only — shot to show he belongs.
"It's a national stage, everybody's watching and I'm just trying to go out there and prove that I'm not just a back of doing just enough to get us there," he said. "I want to be a back that led us to the Super Bowl."
The first step comes on Sunday against Denver in the wild card round, where Redman must be effective enough to take some of the pressure off hobbled quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was limited in practice on Wednesday as he continues to deal with a painful sprained left ankle.
Redman would welcome a heavy workload. He ran for 92 yards and a touchdown in a 13-9 win at Cleveland last weekend on a career-high 19 carries. Yet he also fumbled twice and spent the fourth quarter watching rookie John Clay take his spot as the Steelers tried to close it out.
No offense to Clay, but Redman would prefer to keep Clay off the field against the Broncos. Redman thinks he can be an every-down back. He's waited a long time for the opportunity. No need wasting it trying to get some rest on the sideline.
Redman's done enough resting on Sundays to last him quite awhile, thanks. He's ready to showcase what his teammates have known since that memorable goal line drill at Saint Vincent College three years ago: that the 6-foot, 230-pound former Division II standout was a handful with the ball tucked under his right arm.
During the end of the first week of padded practices, the Steelers place the ball at the 3 and bring in the goal line units for both offense and defense. It's football at its most basic. Whichever team gets to five first — meaning five stops for the defense, five touchdowns for the offense — wins.
It's a challenge the defense has dominated for years. At least, until Redman came along.
He can't quite remember how many times he ran the ball that day. Seven? Eight? It hardly mattered as much as the result, a series of bruising touchdown runs that got him noticed.
Tomlin had spent the first few days of camp calling Redman all kinds of names except the right one. There was "Barlow" as in former NFL running back Kevan Barlow. There was "Bowie." There was "out of shape."
It wasn't until watching Redman bull through the first-team defense that Tomlin finally got it right.
"I was like 'This is my time to make a name for myself,'" Redman said. "I was like, 'Maybe Coach Tomlin will call me Redman after this.'"
Tomlin eventually dubbed Redman "Red Zone" for his ability to create space in the middle of a pile and find the end zone. Though Redman ended up getting cut, the Steelers signed him to the practice squad hoping he'd develop.
It was the first time his entire life Redman didn't make the active roster. He turned the frustration into fuel.
"I was uncomfortable on the practice squad," Redman said. "I had never been cut from anything and I just didn't feel right being on the practice squad.
"I felt like I could help this team win."
He made the team out of camp in 2010, running effectively while spelling Mendenhall. He also provides the Steelers with the kind of smashmouth back they haven't had since Jerome Bettis retired after the 2005 season.
Mendenhall is shifty and quick. Redman is neither. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"You know that he's going to hit the hole and if one's there great, if not, he'll try to make one anyway," center Maurkice Pouncey said.
Redman doesn't have Mendenhall's breakaway speed — his longest rush this year is 27 yards — but he's more consistent. His 4.4 yards per carry is better than Mendenhall's 4.1 average and he's rarely tackled for a loss, something Mendenhall occasionally does while dancing around trying to make something out of nothing.
The Steelers have evolved since Bettis' retirement from a smashmouth team into one that relies heavily on Roethlisberger. With their star quarterback playing basically on one leg, Redman's presence could allow Pittsburgh to get back to basics. The Steelers finished a so-so 14th in the league in rushing this season and only had a back top 100 yards three times all year.
Yet there could be running room aplenty against the league's 22nd-ranked rush defense.Comment on this story
If there isn't, Redman will try to make some. While helping the Steelers to a seventh Super Bowl title is the priority, Redman — who is under contract through next season — knows his performance during Pittsburgh's playoff run could pay off down the road.
"I'd be lying if I said I'd be fine with being a backup my whole career," he said. "Any opportunity I get I want to showcase my talent and hopefully somebody here or wherever looks at me and says 'Man, this guy is capable of being a No. 1 back in this league.'"