It's crunch time for Steelers RB Mendenhall
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall began his NFL career by absorbing a crunching tackle that derailed his rookie season.
A fractured shoulder, the result of a crunching hit from Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, suffered in his first start led to concerns about Mendenhall's toughness and ability to run inside. Mendenhall answered those worries with an impressive second season featuring 1,108 rushing yards at 4.6 per carry.
More impressively, Mendenhall gained more than half of those yards after contact. According to profootballfocus.com, Mendenhall ranked 14th in the NFL, fifth in the AFC and second among AFC North running backs with 64.1 percent of his yards coming after contact.
"As a running back, you want to get all the yards you can," said Mendenhall, who accumulated 686 of his rushing yards after contact in 2009. "When the journey's over, it's over, but you don't want to go down easily — whether it's making guys miss, running through guys or being able to take it the distance."
Mendenhall's numbers compare favorably with his peers. Baltimore's Ray Rice accumulated 33 more yards after contact on 12 more carries. Mendenhall averaged 3.0 yards on his carries after contact, compared with Rice's 2.8-yard average.
Noted for his quick bursts into the secondary, including a 60-yard sprint last season, Mendenhall, by the numbers, also displayed toughness between the tackles. Running backs coach Kirby Wilson said Mendenhall's nickname is "RAC" for his ability to "run after contact."
"He's got tremendous lower-body strength. There's a lot of times when people don't recognize his ability to run through arm tackles and first contact. Very seldom does the first tackler or first hitter ever get him down," Wilson said Thursday. "Those are the hidden runs that add up over the course of the year."
Since he is entrenched as the team's featured back after the departure of Willie Parker, look for Mendenhall to handle a greater workload.
"He has the unique ability to play every down, every situation. You can probably count that many guys on one hand who can do that in this league," Wilson said. "He's an outstanding pass protector. He's got unbelievable hands. He can run inside. He can run outside. He can run off-tackle, misdirection runs. He does a lot of things for this offense that are kind of in the background right now.
"He's got great power and will only get better over the next four to five years."
Mendenhall said his first two seasons provided some insight into how to prepare for 2010. Sturdy at 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, he's lifting weights to increase strength (the better to shed tacklers), and he's learning how to think during the game and make split-second awareness.
"I'm a lot more comfortable. Last year was almost like my first year," he said. "Just having that experience, things happen a lot quicker, a lot more natural — being more myself. After going through it, you kind of know what to expect, you know how to train, what works for your body. I tried to prepare myself as well as I could going into this year."
Said Wilson: "History says young guys always have to develop who they are when they get into this league. They have a style that was successful in college. When they get to this league, they have to adjust — they develop and find out who they are. It's fun to see him develop into that now."