Big burden falls on Mendenhall

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So Dennis Dixon will get the start at quarterback Sunday afternoon against the Atlanta Falcons. It's not the right call by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, not the right call at all. Charlie Batch is the better option because of his experience. He knows the offense inside out and sees the field better than Dixon. He isn't likely to make the killer mistakes that gets his team beat. He would give the Steelers their best chance of winning.

Tomlin said something else troubling Monday when he announced Dixon was his man. He said Dixon would have use of the "whole playbook," unlike last season in Baltimore when he made his only NFL start against the Ravens and ran a pared-down version of the offense in a 20-17 overtime loss. I'm not sure Dixon is ready for that. I'd feel a whole lot better about him if I knew a lot of the play calls involved him turning around and handing the ball to No. 34.

You know, Rashard Mendenhall.

I'm thinking he has to have a monster game Sunday for the Steelers to win.

He needs to have a monster season, actually.

Mendenhall proved he's capable in the final 13 games last season after being benched on offense in a Sept. 27 game at Cincinnati and publicly lashed by Tomlin for not being up to speed with the game plan. A lot of players would have sulked. Mendenhall reacted exactly the way Tomlin had hoped. That was good coaching by him. Mendenhall studied hard and played harder the rest of the way. He finished the season with 1,108 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, making veteran running back Willie Parker expendable.

Now, Mendenhall clearly is the guy, which is a good thing. He's a big-time back, if you ask me. I hear people say he has fumbling problems, but that's nonsense. He touched the ball 242 times last season as a runner and 25 more as a pass receiver and fumbled it three times. He can play on my team any day.

"I am not a fumbler," Mendenhall said. "I think when I do fumble, it gets magnified by the way I carry the ball. But fumbling has never been an issue with me. All of my coaches through high school and college and here know that."

It's fair to argue Mendenhall has reached a point with the Steelers that he's right there with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, defensive end Aaron Smith and safety Troy Polamalu as players the team absolutely can't afford to lose to injury. Behind him are third-down specialist Mewelde Moore and two players who have yet to carry the ball in an NFL game, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer.

For the Steelers' sake, as well as Mendenhall's, knock on wood that Mendenhall stays healthy.

Not that the man is worried about getting hurt.

Turns out he's a nut about eating right and doing acupuncture.

"Last year was my first year doing it," Mendenhall said of the acupuncture treatments. "[Teammate] James Farrior got me into it. I probably do it every other week and do chiropractic work the other week."

Hey, if it gets Mendenhall 300-plus carries this season ...

"It's nothing new for me," he said of carrying a full load, including work as the Steelers' third-down back. "It's been that way my whole life, all through high school and college. It's just on a bigger stage here."

Just in case, Tomlin made it a point to save Mendenhall during the exhibition season, giving him just five, eight, five and five carries in the four games. It's hard for any back to put up big numbers when being used like that and Mendenhall didn't. He had just one double-digit run, an 11-yarder against the Denver Broncos.

No worries.

"The preseason isn't about yards," Mendenhall said. "It's about reads, decision-making, picking up blitzes, blocking, explosion through the hole. The coaches are looking at those things to see if you're ready."

And the verdict on Mendenhall?

"I'm ready. I'm all good."

That's a comforting thought for Sunday, especially with Dixon getting the start.

If Mendenhall doesn't get 25-30 touches, I'll be surprised.

And the Steelers probably won't win.

Ron Cook: . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published September 7, 2010 4:00 AM


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