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Mendenhall having trouble hanging onto ball

| Monday, Aug. 25, 2008

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin walked with his arm around the shoulder of rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall as the team filed into the visiting locker room Saturday night at the Metrodome.

Tomlin didn't divulge what he said to the first-round pick. Although, it's pretty clear that the conversation went something like this: Keep your head up and keep that ball tucked to your body as if your roster spot depended on it.

Not that Mendenhall is in any danger of being cut.

But whether he gives the Steelers a 1-2 punch at running back that the team has lacked since 2005 depends largely on his ability to hang onto the ball.

Mendenhall showcased the running ability Saturday that made him the 23rd overall pick of the 2008 NFL Draft. The 5-foot-10, 224-pounder rushed for 79 yards in the Steelers' 12-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, Mendenhall also struggled with something that plagued him early in his career at Illinois.

Mendenhall lost a pair of fumbles, including one late in the fourth quarter that almost cost the Steelers a chance of winning the game.

"It's something we were concerned about. It's something we made him aware of," Tomlin said of Mendenhall hanging onto the ball. "It's part of being a ball toter in the National Football League. He's got the skill set to be successful. But the prerequisite is ball security, and he's got to shore up that element of his game."

Mendenhall said the fumbles weren't a result of the way he carries the ball. He added that he needs to be more mindful of protecting it at this level.

"I think it's just the NFL game," Mendenhall said. "Guys are bigger, faster, they're going after the ball. So, you've just got to watch the tape, see what happened and re-assess it and move forth from there."

Mendenhall did rip off runs of 21, 18 and 16 yards, and he said he's starting to play more instinctively as his comfort level with the offense grows.

The Steelers are hoping to pair Mendenhall with starter Willie Parker and give them a running back tandem comparable to the one they saw Saturday night in Minnesota.

Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor combined for more almost 2,200 rushing yards last season. The Vikings, meanwhile, led the NFL in rushing.

When asked if the Steelers have a duo in Parker and Mendenhall that can be comparable to Peterson and Taylor, Tomlin said, "We believe we do, but ball security starts that."

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