Mendenhall shows double-threat versatility
Rashard Mendenhall tries to spin out of a tackle by Green Bay's Atari Bigby in last Sunday's game. Mendenhall needs only 22 yards against the Ravens to become the seventh Steelers runner to turn in a 1,000-yard season.
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The Steelers might have become a pass-first team, as their quarterback so strongly noted this week. That does not necessarily mean their backs are ignored.
Take Rashard Mendenhall -- not only should he become the seventh different back in Steelers history to hit 1,000 yards for a season Sunday, he also will become their most versatile in at least 17 years.
Once Mendenhall runs for those 22 yards that he needs to reach four figures, he will become the first back to have 1,000 yards rushing and at least 230 yards receiving since Barry Foster did it in 1992. Mendenhall has 23 receptions for 231 yards.
Foster had many more yards rushing on what was a run-first offense in Bill Cowher's first season as the coach. Offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt was known as the frog because that sound you heard coming from him was "runitrunitrunitrunit."
- Game: Ravens vs. Steelers
- When: 1 p.m.
- Where: Heinz Field
- TV: KDKA
Foster ran it like no other Steelers back for one season, setting the team record with 1,690 yards rushing. He added 344 more yards on 36 receptions, the most yards by a Steelers back who also rushed for 1,000.
Foster, though, was not the kind of receiver that Mendenhall is or can become with more experience. Foster caught more screens and more dump-off passes and did not play on third downs.
Mendenhall can be a true breakaway threat as a receiver and the third-down job finally was turned over to him the past two games.
In the 37-36 victory Sunday against Green Bay, he showed what he could do in that role. He caught six passes for 73 yards, the most productive day for a Steelers back in the passing game since Amos Zereoue had 83 yards receiving Oct. 6, 2002, at New Orleans. No back caught more passes since Willie Parker had seven Nov. 5, 2006, against Denver.
"I think that's what we envisioned a few weeks ago when I said that his role would be expanding," coach Mike Tomlin said. "With each day, this guy gains confidence and, really, we gain confidence in what he's capable of. He's rock solid from an assignment standpoint in blitz pickup, and I think it starts there."
Players have to block to play on third downs, but Mendenhall lines up wide in the empty set.
"Where he's also getting increasingly sharp is in being where he's supposed to be in terms of route distributions,: Tomlin said. "He can catch the football. He's been able to do that since the day he walked in here, but he's rounding out a complete game and is becoming a guy that can help us in all areas, similar to what Ray Rice is doing in Baltimore."
Two of the best at doing all of that consistently over at least the past 40 years were Franco Harris and Merril Hoge. Harris is the only back besides Foster who gained 1,000 yards and had more than 250 receiving. Harris had 1,007 yards rushing and 278 receiving on 34 receptions in 1983. Hoge and Frenchy Fuqua are the only backs who led the team in rushing and tied in receptions since 1969 but neither had 1,000 yards when they did it. Hoge caught 50 passes in 1988 (705 rushing) and Fuqua caught 49 in 1971 (625 rushing).
Hoge was the undisputed best back catching the ball. He followed that 50-catch season in 1988 with 34 in '89, 40 in '90, 49 in '91, 28 in '92 and 32 in '93. John L. Williams was the champ for one season at catching passes as a back when he led the team with 51 in '94 (317 yards rushing).
As the Steeelers' offense turns more to passing the ball and as Mendenhall remains on the field on third downs, he could eclipse all of them. As it is, Mendenhall needs 114 yards receiving in the next two games to become the Steelers' back with the most receiving yards in a 1,000-yard rushing season.
Baby steps first, though. Mendenhall played only four games last season before a broken shoulder ended it for him. He got off to a slow start this season with only seven carries in the first three games.
A 1,000-yard season in 2009 alone would represent a good return on the Steelers' investment in him as their first-round draft choice in 2008.
"It feels good as far as getting injured last year and, to have that opportunity to take it and run with it feels good," Mendenhall said. "It's a great milestone for a back. It's almost like my first season and to have a thousand is an accomplishment."
Mendenhall (hip), receivers Hines Ward (hamstring) and Mike Wallace (knee), defensive end Brett Keisel (neck) and halfback Willie Parker (knee) all went through a full practice yesterday and will play Sunday, barring setbacks. Baltimore safety Ed Reed, who has missed the past three games with various injuries, did not practice for the second consecutive day with a groin injury. Guard Chris Kemoeatu, who missed Sunday's game with a wrist injury, did not practice yesterday because of that injury.
First Published December 25, 2009 12:00 am