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Healing Mendenhall impresses in practice

| Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall is moving closer to a return. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Rashard Mendenhall might not make his season debut Sunday against Oakland, but teammates say it's not because he isn't ready.

Following the first practice in which coach Mike Tomlin permitted the defense to “thud-up” Mendenhall and his surgically repaired knee, teammates were impressed with what they saw from the mending running back.

“He made a cut on the back side of a zone (blocking scheme) and just took off,” guard Willie Colon said. “It kind of reminded me of the old Rashard. He actually looked more explosive. He looked fast. Everything I saw was a good sign.”

Mendenhall has been practicing in full for the past couple of weeks while gradually adding more to his rehabilitation. Mendenhall stepped up his practice preparation recently to where fellow running back Isaac Redman said he believes it is only a matter of time before Mendenhall is on the field on game days.

“He looked excellent out there,” Redman said. “He is cutting, he is making reads, and he got the burst back.”

But will that be enough for Mendenhall to get on the field for the first time since tearing his ACL on New Year's Day?

“Possibly, but I am still taking it a day at a time,” Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall said there has been a plan in place by the medical staff, the organization and himself regarding his recovery. All involved will make the decision of when he will be cleared to play.

“It is just all of us putting our heads together and ultimately everybody feeling comfortable enough,” Mendenhall said. “When there is a green light, that is what I am preparing for.”

The Steelers could use a healthy Mendenhall to cure an ailing running game.

The Steelers rank 30th in the NFL in rushing (70.5 yards per game) and yards per carry (2.6), but what has been particularly alarming is their lack of big plays on the ground. A year after having 20 rushes of 15 yards or longer (eight by Mendenhall), the Steelers have none through two games. What's more, the Steelers have 10 rushing plays that have gone for negative yards, including seven against the Jets last week.

“(Mendenhall) is our home run back,” Colon said. “We all know that if he breaks it, he can get to the end zone. All we have to do is give him a little bit, and he will take care of the rest.”

Mendenhall, who is the final year of his rookie contract, said he will continue to be diligent with his return. An injury-free season could result in a lucrative contract for the former first-rounder.

“I am preparing to get back to that level,” Mendenhall said. “That's where my focus is.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mkaboly@tribweb.com.

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