Running backs Mendenhall, Benson following similar paths to NFL success
Rashard Mendenhall didn't get one offensive snap the last time the Steelers played the Bengals.
Since coach Mike Tomlin sent a message to the second-year running back to pay better attention to detail, Mendenhall has had the look of an emerging star.
Cedric Benson washed out in Chicago and found himself looking for gainful employment as recently as last season. Since Cincinnati rescued him from the scrap heap, Benson has helped administer CPR to an offense that ranked dead last in the NFL in 2008.
The bruising backs that have taken similar paths to this point are certain to leave their imprint on today's AFC North showdown at Heinz Field — as well as the players responsible with bringing them to the ground.
The Steelers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since 2007 but Benson had 77 yards and a touchdown against them in the Bengals' 23-20 win in late September. He also averaged 4.8 yards per carry, which is almost unheard of against a defense that is best in the NFL at stopping the run.
As defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of Benson, "We can't let this guy control the game. This is one of the top, top guys that we'll face."
Former running backs coach Dick Hoak fell in love with Benson's blend of size and speed when the Steelers were preparing for the 2005 NFL draft. The Steelers never got a chance to take the player they had near the top of their draft board as the Bears tabbed Benson with the fourth overall selection.
Three years later, however, the Steelers used their first-round pick on Mendenhall, who reminded offensive coordinator Bruce Arians of Benson.
Unfortunately for Mendenhall, his professional career did not start much better than Benson's did.
He missed most of his rookie season after a hit by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis fractured his shoulder. He had only 45 rushing yards through the first two games this season. Then, Tomlin essentially benched him in Cincinnati because he was not happy with how Mendenhall practiced leading up to the Sept. 27 game.
"He had made really good progress up to that point, and it was a point and time to learn how to take the next step. Detail is what is the next step, talent is not it," Arians said. "It's the guys who pay attention to the details and little things that make you a better player and coach Tomlin made a very good point to him that that's what he needed to do. He has done that and his game's improved."
Indeed, Mendenhall has shown why the Steelers took him 23rd overall in the 2008 draft while adding another dimension to an offense that can give opposing defenses fits through the air.
Mendenhall is averaging almost six yards per carry and is on pace to become just the seventh player in Steelers history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He has had issues with fumbling — Arians said experience will fix that problem — but they haven't stopped Mendenhall from seizing the starting job at running back.
"I've always had confidence in myself and seen this coming," Mendenhall said.
Mendenhall doesn't exactly radiate confidence.
He is one of the more reserved players in a locker room that is stocked with characters. He apparently doesn't say a whole lot in the huddle either.
"He just kind of gives us a nod and rolls with it," right tackle Willie Colon said. "He's pretty meek."
His running style is anything but that, and the same can be said of his counterpart in today's 1 p.m. game.
Benson punishes opposing defenses as the Ravens can attest — he went over 100 yards rushing in both Bengals win over Baltimore this season — and he has developed into the kind of player the Bears thought they were getting in 2005.
Benson became the latest in a line of first-round running back busts in Chicago for a number of reasons.
He never really fit in on a team that had the productive and popular Thomas Jones at running back when the Bears drafted Benson.
A lengthy holdout his rookie season didn't help. Nor did the fact that Benson never came close to putting up big numbers in the city where the late, great Walter Payton is an icon.
The coup de grace to his career as a Bear came after he got arrested in separate alcohol-related incidents in a span of five weeks in 2008 (charges of driving under the influence were later dropped).
The Bears released Benson in June of that year. It wasn't until late September that the Bengals took a chance on Benson and signed him.
Reflecting on his turbulent time in Chicago, Benson said, "I was convicted in people's minds for things off the field that didn't really happen, and the record proves that. But sure, there were things I could have done differently when I was there, inside the team. I've moved on, I'm a more mature person now. I'm not out for revenge or anything like that.
That was probably news to the Bears after Benson shredded them for 189 rushing yards and a touchdown in a Bengals 45-10 thrashing of Chicago three weeks ago. What might be just as satisfying to Benson as sticking it to the Bears is becoming the first player in 30 games to rush for 100 yards against the Steelers.
What is certain: the collisions between Benson and a defense that prides itself on shutting down the run won't be for the squeamish.
"He runs a lot bigger than what he is," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "A lot bigger."Additional Information:
Tale of the tape
Cedric Benson vs. Rashard Mendenhall
Height: 5-11 vs. 5-10
Weight: 220 vs. 225
NFL rushing rank: 2nd vs. tied for 11th
Rushing yards: 837 vs. 573
Yards per carry: 4.2 vs. 5.7
Longest run: 28 vs. 39
Rushing TDs: 6 vs. 4