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Steelers get premium rush with Mendenhall back in the game

| Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, 12:58 p.m.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall runs against the Eagles at Heinz Field Oct. 7, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the Steelers rediscovered Sunday what a running game can do for a team's confidence, state of mind and, most importantly, place in the standings.

“We got it going,” right guard Ramon Foster said. “And it's a good thing.”

Now that Rashard Mendenhall is back and their offense isn't one-dimensional for the first time all season, the Steelers might be running into just the right opponent at just the right time.

The Tennessee Titans (1-4) are getting lit up like no other team of recent NFL vintage. They are the first NFL team to allow at least 30 points in each of its first five games since 1954. And they are yielding points faster — 36.2 per game — than any team since their franchise forerunners, the 1961 Houston Oilers.

The Titans followed up a 38-14 loss to the Texans two weeks ago with a desultory 30-7 loss at Minnesota on Sunday and now, rather than spending a day or two soul- searching for answers, they must rush into a Thursday night home game against the Steelers (2-2).

“There's nowhere to go,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We are who we are. There's no draft coming up, there's no adding more players, getting new coaches. This is the group we have and this group has to play much better, and we have to do it quickly.”

NFL players greatly dislike Thursday games because they have so little time to heal from Sunday games. This one could be an exception for the Steelers, whose 16-14 win over the Eagles prevented the Ravens (4-1) from opening a huge lead over them in the AFC North race.

The Steelers were run-deficient in their first three games, effectively forcing Roethlisberger and his receivers to manufacture offense. But Mendenhall's 81 yards led them to lean heavily on the run during their game-winning drive in the fourth quarter on a day the Eagles cornerbacks' press coverage was helping to negate receiver Mike Wallace.

“He (Mendenhall) looked great, and we got to keep working on it and not slack off in any area in the running game,” center Maurkice Pouncey said.

Roethlisberger's 72.7 rating was his lowest of the season — he wasn't helped by his receivers' five dropped passes — yet he still had 21 completions. And he was 4 of 5 for 50 yards on the decisive drive that ended with Shaun Suisham's 34-yard field goal.

“A lot of guys can make an argument for being franchise quarterbacks,” Tomlin said. “They come in many forms, shapes and sizes and skill sets. Some are pocket passers. Some are mobile. But the reality is if they're in that discussion, it's because they deliver when it's time to deliver. He is in that discussion.”

Just as Mendenhall delivered in time for a team that went nearly a month without anything approximating a ground game.

“He ran the ball hard and caught the ball,” Tomlin said, a reference to Mendenhall's two catches for 20 yards. “He was a source of energy for the (offensive) unit. That's what great players do. They inspire those around them.”

The Steelers could use some inspiration on the road, where they are 5-6 with three consecutive losses and four in their last five since last season. Their defense almost certainly will be without safety Troy Polamalu (calf) and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring), but it might not matter if their now-balanced offense can produce the way every one of Tennessee's opponents has to date.

“Now we've got to get above .500,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “And keep stacking wins.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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