Mendenhall has matured into feature back
By: John Perrotto
Beaver County Times
Sunday February 6, 2011

ARLINGTON, Texas — Rashard Mendenhall was obviously outside his comfort zone.

For three straight days this past week, the 1,000-yard rusher and the rest of his teammates were subjected to one hour of media availability.

Some Steelers, such as Hines Ward, Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark, were clearly comfortable in the give-and-take sessions with reporters and assorted others who tried to act as reporters.

The soft-spoken Mendenhall, for his part, dutifully and politely answered everyone’s questions. The third-year running back, though, certainly wasn’t seeking the spotlight and definitely wasn’t doing any self promoting.

“I really don’t like talking about myself,” Mendenhall said. “I just don’t feel comfortable bragging about myself. It’s not me.”

Mendenhall doesn’t need to brag. His statistics do that for him.

Mendenhall rushed for 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns last season, his second in the NFL, and increased those figures to 1,273 and 13 this season.

Mendenhall, the Steelers’ first-round draft pick in 2008, is just 23 years old. If Mendenhall were a typical college player who takes a redshirt, he would just be winding up his rookie year rather than his third NFL season.

That leaves Steelers coach Mike Tomlin raving about what he has already seen from Mendenhall as well as what the future might hold.

“He’s grown into a mature man and player,” Tomlin said. “He continues to get better. One of the things that we like about Rashard is that he is an intelligent individual. He’s got a desire to be great. He doesn’t ride the emotional rollercoaster. He has a legitimate, sound perspective on all this. He’s mature beyond his years from that standpoint.

“But there is no question that he is a guy who is still in development as a player and a person. He’s 23 years old now. It’s been fun to watch and I’m sure it will continue to be fun to watch him grow and develop.”

Mendenhall has come a long way since the beginning of last season when he carried just seven times in the first two games while backing up Willie Parker. Mendenhall was then benched for the third game against Cincinnati after having what Tomlin termed a bad week of practice.

However, Tomlin was forced to play Mendenhall in Week 4 because of an injury to Parker. Mendenhall responded with a 165-yard performance in a victory over San Diego and has been in the starting lineup since.

“It was kind of a surprise,” Mendenhall said of the benching, “but at the same time, coach Tomlin is very fair, he’s very reasonable. He let me know exactly what it was. I don’t think it was as big as people make it but that was one of the steps along the way of my growth. Whatever it is, a certain game or if you miss a (pass) protection, I think everything goes toward your growth as a player.”

Mendenhall has grown into a running back that can run past the defense with his speed or punish it with his solidly built 5-foot-10, 225-pound frame. He has also developed into a capable receiving threat with 48 catches for 428 yards in the last two seasons.

Mendenhall has outstanding balance, too, which adds to the difficultly defenses have in bringing him down. It was something he was able to work on when his rookie season ended in the fourth game of 2008 because of a shoulder injury.

To fill the time on injured reserve, Mendenhall took dance lessons. He continues to use dance as part of his conditioning.

“I feel a lot more limber and have control of my body in areas you don’t really strengthen in workouts,” Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall has proven to be durable this season as his 324 regular-season carries were fourth in the NFL behind Atlanta’s Michael Turner (334), St. Louis’ Steven Jackson (330) and Houston’s Arian Foster (327).

Mendenhall has carried 47 more times in the Steelers’ two playoff victories. After being limited to 46 yards in 20 attempts by Baltimore in the divisional round, Mendenhall rebounded with 127 yards on 21 carries against the Jets in the AFC Championship.

Mendenhall says he is too excited to be tired.

“When the playoffs hit, play rises for everybody,” he said. “It’s just time where there’s no turning back. Nobody wants to go home, so the level of play goes up for everybody and even more now that we’re in the Super Bowl.”