The Vikings' Kevin Williams knocks the ball loose from the grasp of Steelers Rashard Mendenhall in the first half of the preseason game in Minneapolis.
By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The beauty of the NFL preseason is that coaches use it is as barometer to make decisions, but only when it's convenient. Veteran mistakes are dismissed and ignored as gaffes that don't count. Rookie accomplishments are hailed and triumphed as steps in the right direction.
And so it is with rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall. He is no veteran, to be sure, not at age 21 and the youngest player on the team. But he is no ordinary rookie, either, not after being the 23rd overall selection in the draft.
Mendenhall was the Steelers' leading rusher in the preseason, gaining 222 yards on 54 carries and averaging 4.1 yards per attempt. But he also had this annoying little problem of not holding onto the ball, fumbling three times in the past two games and causing his coach, Mike Tomlin, to express some reluctance about using Mendenhall when the games start to count.
The regular season begins at 1 p.m. tomorrow against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field, and Mendenhall's mistakes are being given the same dismissive treatment as presidential campaign rhetoric: They are being swept under the carpet and forgotten ... at least until he fumbles again.
"I've coached running backs too long," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "I don't worry about that. Just play football. Run it when you're handed it and just hold on to it."
In other words, the Steelers are no more concerned about Mendenhall's recent rash of fumbles than they might be a missed Ben Roethlisberger pass. They are wiping the slate clean and planning to use him in the same manner they had planned all along -- getting him in for as many as 10 to 15 plays a game as a backup to Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker.
Mendenhall also will be the primary kick-returner against the Texans.
"You never know, it could be 20," Arians said. "It depends on the flow of the game. If Willie has a normal game, it should be in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 plays."
"You don't want to fill their plate too much, especially early in season. You like them to have success. Preseason, to me, doesn't count. You don't want them to fail in the regular season. You want them to have success. There might be a chance he's our starter next week. We want to make sure he comes out of this game confident."
Even Tomlin, who said last week he would be reluctant to use Mendenhall in the regular season ("Wouldn't you?" he asked), has backed off that comment and appears ready to give his No. 1 pick a fresh start.
"I reserve judgment till we see how he performs in the regular season," Tomlin said. "Of course, he's going to have the opportunity to do that. He's preparing to play. We're not going to know until we play."
And Mendenhall said he is excited to do that, not dwelling on the fumbles and not altering the style that made him the third running back selected in the draft. He said "nothing has changed, for the most part."
After all, he added, he never had a problem with fumbles in high school or at Illinois. The last thing he wants to do is start cradling the football like a modern-day Earl Gros.
"I think it's the same thing as going from high school to college, from college to the NFL," Mendenhall said. "It's just learning how to play the game as a whole. The more comfortable you are, the better you get at it. The best thing is being comfortable and playing the game.
"How I carried the ball has always been the same. You just learn how to play the game."
The arrival of Mendenhall, who started for just one season at Illinois before leaving after his junior year, is the biggest change in what amounts to an overhauled backfield for the Steelers. Parker returns after a Pro Bowl season that was cut short with a fractured fibula in Week 15, but fullback Dan Kreider is gone, as is Najeh Davenport, the No. 2 back the past two years.
Mendenhall will be joined by Mewelde Moore, who was signed in free agency from the Minnesota Viking and will be the team's third-down back.
"When you're on a new team everybody wants to see how you work, what you're capable of doing and, most of all, how you interact with everyone from a professional standpoint," Moore said.
"When you're with another team and you have new guys come in who are supposed to help your team out, you know from how you were in those other shoes, how you were looking at the new guys coming in. So, now that you're the new guy, I kind of know what's in their mind."
The same curiosity might exist with Mendenhall, but for a different reason.