Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall has dazzled his teammates this season with his nifty moves. Fast and powerful, he runs hard inside and outside.
"Rashard's explosive," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He can hit the home run ball. He has great footwork. I thought Jerome [Bettis] had great feet for his size. But I look at some of the cuts that Mendenhall's been making, and I say, 'Wow, this guy can be really special.' "
Mendenhall, 5 feet 10 and 225 pounds, is the third-leading rusher in the playoffs with 167 yards on 47 carries. He also has rushed for three postseason touchdowns entering the Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers next Sunday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
"I think the light finally came on for him," Ward said. "It usually takes about three or four years for that to happen, and I think he's starting to realize that he could be a great asset in this league, a great superstar in this league.
"I look for him to have another big game."
Mendenhall had 95 of his game-high 121 yards and a touchdown in the first half of the Steelers' 24-19 victory Jan. 23 against the New York Jets in the AFC championship game at Heinz Field. He also had two catches for 32 yards, giving him three for 45 yards in the playoffs.
"I guess you could say I am pretty versatile," Mendenhall said. "I do whatever is necessary at the time, whether it's making somebody miss a tackle, running through somebody or outrunning somebody. I know I have to be able to do what the situation calls for."
After the victory against the Jets, Mendenhall stood on a makeshift stage at Heinz Field with Pro Football Hall of Fame members Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, who each earned four Super Bowl rings while playing together in the backfield in the Steelers' glory days of the 1970s.
"It means a lot when you hear the names of guys like Franco, Jerome, Rocky Bleier and Willie Parker," Mendenhall said. "It's such a great tradition to be part of.
"But I think there's a lot more work I have to do to be mentioned in the same breath with those guys."
Although Mendenhall scored two rushing touchdowns in a 31-24 victory against the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC divisional playoff game, he was held to just 46 yards rushing on 20 carries and lost a fumble.
Afterward, Peter King of Sports Illustrated criticized Mendenhall's play.
"[He] is just not a big-time back," King wrote.
Mendenhall shrugged off King's criticism.
"I don't get too much into that," he said. "People are going to say good things and bad things about you. I try to keep it as normal and steady as possible."
Mendenhall, a first-round draft pick from Illinois in 2008, ranked fifth in the AFC and seventh in the NFL in rushing with a career-high 1,273 yards in the 2010 regular season.
He also ran for a career-high 13 rushing touchdowns -- the most since Willie Parker had 13 in 2006 -- and he led the Steelers in scoring with 78 points.
Mendenhall, who has four 100-yard rushing games this season, including the playoffs, was the first running back to lead the team in scoring in the regular season since Harris scored 11 touchdowns in 1977. (Harris also holds the team record with 14 rushing touchdowns in a season, set in 1976).
"I think Rashard's had a great season," said offensive tackle Max Starks, who is on injured reserve with a neck injury. "The way he's been running has been consistent. And he has great patience and power and speed."
Mendenhall, who played in just four games as a rookie in 2008 after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He ran for 1,108 yards on 242 carries and seven touchdowns in '09, his second NFL season.
"I think I've grown a lot as a player," Mendenhall said. "For me, personally, it won't stop. I will continue to keep working. I feel like I can get more experience with every year, every season.
"To me, I just want to continue to grow and improve until I'm done playing."
Ron Musselman: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published January 30, 2011 5:00 AM