Being benched best thing to happen to Mendenhall
Rashard Mendenhall gets ready for the start of Tuesday's afternoon workout at Saint Vincent College.
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Mike Tomlin would not fall into the category of strict disciplinarian as such things go in NFL coaching circles. He's neither softy nor despot.
Twice, however, he has used one of the tools in his box, the big stick, and both times he got good results.
The first occurred in 2008 when Tomlin benched Santonio Holmes for the Oct. 26 game against the New York Giants, two days after police arrested him for marijuana possession. Holmes went on to earn Super Bowl MVP that season.
The other time Tomlin benched a player came in the third game of last season when he would not use Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield in Cincinnati, even after Willie Parker was hurt during the game. Tomlin explained that Mendenhall had a few practice lapses the previous week.
All Mendenhall did the next week was rush for 165 yards against the San Diego Chargers and finish the season with 1,108 yards and a 4.6-yard average per carry.
The next two logical questions then: Who will Tomlin bench next to get such spectacular results? And, where can Mendenhall go from here?
"I think if he continues on the path that he's on right now he's going to have one heck of a year," said Kirby Wilson, who coaches the Steelers' backs.
The rocky start to Mendenhall's career has taken a back seat to his potential as a star running back in the NFL. He had only 45 yards through his first three games -- 39 on one carry in Chicago -- before Parker's injury opened the door for him to start. He not only became their horse, he looked like the thoroughbred they drafted in the first round. If he could top 1,100 yards under last year's conditions, 1,500 is well in his range.
"I really try not to get into all that," Mendenhall said about any talk of yardage totals he might attain. "After having that year and experience, I feel I'm better and more comfortable but I don't really get into that. I'll just take each game as it comes."
His rookie season in 2008 became a disaster when he started for an injured Parker in the third game and left after nine carries when Baltimore's Ray Lewis slammed into him and broke his shoulder. When he was not spotted around the team much the rest of the season, there was speculation he lacked commitment to the sport. And then came the benching (except for special teams play) in Cincinnati.
If the rest of the 2009 season was a shot in the arm, he said he was not the one who needed it.
"Not for me," Mendenhall said. "I think for everybody else; they got a chance to see who I am and how I am. But for me, personally, I've always worked and prepared and done everything I can."
His coach acknowledges as much. Wilson believes the Cincinnati game inaction helped Mendenhall in another way.
"I think that it definitely did, but here's what I'll say, he always worked hard but he had some bad moments that week. I really think that helped him, because he knew he was a hard worker so he knew it wasn't an attack against him personally. It was more that you have to better prepare yourself mentally and I think that really helped him. He hasn't looked back since then, he's really improved and the sky's the limit for him."
Mendenhall wants to be the horse, although he does not particularly want to be worked until the wheels fall off. He's their best back on first, second and third downs and he wants to be their back in short yardage and goal line as well. Wilson and Tomlin say that even though Mendenhall was not used in the live goal-line drill Sunday, he could still hold that job.
The one thing Wilson would like to see him improve is his ability to get past the final defender.
"He can definitely become a lot better finisher," Wilson said. "He had so many 10- to 15-yard runs last season that we would like to see turn into 35- and 45-yard touchdown runs because he's capable of being that type of playmaker.
"That's one of the things you notice in practice now. He was a good finisher last year in practice but this year he's really focused on challenging that last defender for that last step in practice, to work, imagine and visualize himself in real game situations. That's one of the big things he's working on in camp."
Several days and practices after Tomlin and Wilson used the stick on rookie running back Jonathan Dwyer, they have seen a turnaround.
Wilson said the rookie has done a good job since then and he is eager to see him play Saturday night against the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field.
Dwyer was a one-trick pony at Georgia Tech, where all he had to do was run. "We know he can run," Wilson said.
But could he block, pick up the blitzes, catch a pass? And could he show them that football was more important to him, a knock that helped drop him to a sixth-round draft choice. They did not see it as a good sign when he reported to training camp packing extra baggage. Tomlin made him go through four consecutive blocking drills Friday in backs on 'backers with one turn for everyone else, and Wilson chewed him out later, which caused Dwyer to slam his helmet in disgust along the sideline.
Maybe, as in the cases of Holmes and Mendenhall, a little prodding was what the doctor ordered.