Practice over, Rashard Mendenhall stood between two coaches on the field yesterday afternoon while most of his Steelers teammates departed. Mike Tomlin stood on one side; Kirby Wilson, who coaches the running backs, on the other.
They offered advice to Mendenhall about what to expect from the renowned Baltimore Ravens defense when he makes his first pro start Monday night at Heinz Field.
The rookie back has a lot to learn this week as he prepares to play not only the current top-ranked NFL defense, but one as aggressive as they come in the NFL with Hall of Fame linebacker in waiting Ray Lewis smack in the middle of it all.
So Tomlin and Wilson took that time yesterday with their rookie to go over defensive schemes, blitz responsibilities and the like?
"We told him all the nasty things that are going to be said to him Monday night by the Ravens," Wilson said, laughing. "We all wish we had a microphone to tape what's said to him because it's going to be hilarious."
'Steelers vs. Ravens
When: Monday, 8:15 p.m.
Where: Heinz Field
No one does it better than Lewis.
"I told him," Wilson said, "be ready. No. 52? Professional trash talker.
"It's good natured. Those guys are competitors; they do the same to Willie Parker. It's just fun. I know they're going to get after him pretty good. It will be fun to hear some of the stories when they're done come Monday night."
Mendenhall must hope he can laugh along with his coach by then, because making your first NFL start is tough enough, doing it in the Monday night spotlight can add to the anxiety and running against Baltimore's defense makes it a triple play.
The rookie seems to have a good perspective, at the moment.
"It's great, it's exciting, to be at home and a night game. I hear it's going to be a little different atmosphere here in Pittsburgh."
His coaches and teammates say not to worry about those three lost fumbles by Mendenhall in the final two preseason games. But Lewis made sure he mentioned it yesterday in a conference call with the media here, adding that the Ravens would like to strip him of the ball on a few more occasions Monday night.
"It is not a secret," Lewis said. "He has fumbled the ball a couple of times so, if that would be our focus, I think that we would be approaching the game wrong if that was not our focus."
Lewis believes the Ravens are better off Monday without facing Willie Parker, who will miss at least the next two games with a sprained left knee.
"I haven't seen that much of Mendenhall, but I just think that Willie is one of those warriors who is going to come and play the game right. ... When you lose a guy like that, I don't think that you try to replace him. I think that they did a great job drafting Mendenhall. At the same time, I don't know the difference between him and Parker just yet. I think that losing what you lose with Willie is a lot of speed from the running back position."
Mendenhall knows Lewis, in his 13th NFL season, by reputation.
"Oh, man I used to play with him on video games, so I know a lot about Ray Lewis. I mean, he's a great player, there's no doubt about it. In this league, in this business, you're going to face great players every week. He's a great player, I look forward to playing against him."
Wilson said Mendenhall knows the offense well enough that the staff has confidence that he knows where to run and who to block.
"This is what he's been looking for," Hines Ward said. "His dream of playing on prime time in the NFL, getting his first start."
Mendenhall is the first back the Steelers have drafted in the first round since Tim Worley in 1989. Of all the backs they've drafted in the first round, only one has reached 1,000 yards rushing in a season, Franco Harris.
"I've been doing this since training camp and OTAs [organized team activities], and I've been here every day like everybody else," Mendenhall said. "So I'm ready."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 26, 2008) The explanation of the initials OTA in this Steelers story as originally published Sept. 25, 2008 was incorrect. The initials stand for organized team activity.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published September 25, 2008 4:00 AM