Steelers' Mendenhall, Sweed hope to increase production

| Saturday, May 2, 2009

Wide receivers Limas Sweed and Nate Washington were together at a fundraiser in Texas a couple of months ago when Washington agreed to a six-year contract with the Tennessee Titans.

"I said, 'Well, you have to do what you have to do, and now there's an opening, so I have to do what I have to do,'" Sweed said.

Indeed, the Steelers are hoping Sweed seizes the opportunity created by Washington's departure. They are also counting on getting considerably more this season out of running back Rashard Mendenhall, the team's first-round pick in 2008.

If players make the most improvement from their first year to their second, as coach Mike Tomlin contends, then Sweed and Mendenhall should assume more prominent roles in the Steelers' offense this season.

Not that such a progression is guaranteed or that either player will be given anything, especially Sweed.

The Steelers took wide receiver Mike Wallace in the third round of last weekend's draft, and they signed veteran Shaun McDonald, who had 79 catches for 943 yards two seasons ago in Detroit.

If the Steelers are hedging their bets at wide receiver behind Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, that is because Sweed caught just six passes for 64 yards last season and had a memorable drop in the AFC Championship Game.

Sweed, a second-round pick in 2008, would have struggled to receive a passing grade for his rookie campaign. As for Mendenhall, he would have been given an incomplete.

Rude welcome to the NFL

Mendenhall, a former Illinois star, played in four games before he experienced a welcome-to-the-NFL moment that subsequently ended his season. It came during a Monday night game against the Baltimore Ravens when linebacker Ray Lewis tackled Mendenhall and fractured his right shoulder.

The injury did not require surgery, and Mendenhall could have returned near the end of the season. But given his inexperience and the time he would have missed, the Steelers opted to put Mendenhall on injured reserve and free up a roster spot.

Looking back, it's hard to tell which pained Mendenhall more: the actual injury or the inactivity that followed.

"Until that point, I had never missed a game, high school or college, due to injury," Mendenhall said. "I figured it would be a couple of weeks. When they said (I was out for the) season, that was a different perspective for me. It's frustrating watching your teammates play, and you can't put on a helmet."

If there is a Steelers positive to be taken from the injury, it is this: They essentially added two first-round picks to their team for the upcoming season because they got so little out of Mendenhall in 2008.

"We win a Super Bowl and get to add a first-round talent at halfback," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "That's a plus for us."

It will turn into an even bigger plus if Mendenhall's potential translates into production.

The Steelers need Mendenhall to ease the burden on Willie Parker and bolster a running game that ranked 23rd (105.6 yards per game) in the NFL last season.

The 5-foot-10, 225-pound Mendenhall could become a starter sooner rather than later because Parker is going into the final year of his contract.

"We want to see him develop his own style, his own identity," Wilson said. "And we'll find out what we've got because we think we have something special there."

Mendenhall, who is participating this weekend in his second minicamp with the Steelers, said he is much more comfortable than he was at this time a year ago. His transition from the college to the NFL included getting used to new surroundings and finding a place to live.

Now, said Mendenhall, "all I have to concentrate on is football."

Ready to 'let loose?'

Ask Sweed about the difference from last year, and a slow smile creeps across his face.

"I feel like it's night and day," said Sweed, a former University of Texas star.

Sweed's goal is to have others say the difference in him as a player is just as pronounced.

The 6-4, 220-pounder had limited opportunities last year, partly because of players in front of him and partly because he didn't take advantage of the ones he did get.

Sweed had trouble catching the ball, and this was after the Steelers had him get contact lenses during training camp.

He said he thought too much when he was on the field. Sweed had to read coverages, just as a quarterback does, for the first time in his career.

"He has to improve in a lot of areas," said Holmes, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. "He's got to stay focused throughout practice, throughout meetings, get more involved and not sit back and wait for somebody to tell him something or to correct him on little things. He's got to notice a lot of the things he's doing wrong that he can do better."

Sweed's biggest gaffe last season came in the AFC title game, when he dropped what would have been a sure touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger. He atoned, somewhat, later in the game when he summoned his inner Ward and leveled Ravens cornerback Corey Ivy with a block.

"I just let loose, and that's more of what you can look forward to this season," Sweed said. "Not so much those blocks, but letting loose and having fun."

At 24, Sweed already has won a national championship and a Super Bowl ring. But judging from his offseason — he started working out two weeks after the Steelers won the Super Bowl — he is not satisfied.

"I'm excited because I know where to be, what to do," Sweed said. "I want to say it's almost like college, running around, having fun and enjoying it.

"This is what I envisioned when I came to the league. It took me about a year, but I feel like I'm catching on."

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