Mendenhall a versatile every-down back
Marshall Faulk rushed for 1,319 yards and caught 86 passes in 1998.
Edgerrin James followed that the next two years in Indianapolis by averaging 1,631 yards on the ground and scoring a total of 35 touchdowns.
Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians had an up-close look at both of those running backs during his brief time on the Colts' coaching staff a decade ago. He gets flashbacks when he sees Rashard Mendenhall.
"He is a good combination of both those guys," Arians said. "He has that kind of skill set. There is no doubt he can do what those two did."
It's an understatement that the Steelers have high hopes for Mendenhall in his third year. Despite his rookie year being limited to 19 carries and his second year marred with a benching because of a lack of attention to detail, Mendenhall is the player the Steelers are relying on in the running game.
They decided not to re-sign Willie Parker in the offseason and didn't bring in veteran running backs to compete with Mendenhall.
There was a reason for that.
The Steelers expect Mendenhall to do everything this year, meaning he will rarely come off the field.
"My goal is staying out there until I can't," Mendenhall said. "That's my role."
In this era of the running back by committee, the Steelers are looking in a different direction when it comes to Mendenhall.
"He is such an explosive player that you just don't take those guys off the field," Arians said.
Arians plans to use Mendenhall much more than the 242 carries and 1,108 yards he totaled last year. He expects to utilize Mendenhall more out of the backfield as a receiver as well. Mendenhall caught 25 passes a season ago and found the end zone eight times.
Mendenhall is expected to be the third-down back, the goal-line back and possibly the short-yardage guy, too.
"There are not a lot of those types of players in the NFL that can play in every situation," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "He is capable physically and athletically to play in all those areas."
That's not something that happens much anymore in the NFL. Franchises are trying to protect their star running back. Atlanta plans on cutting Michael Turner's workload this year to preserve his durability.
"That is something we don't worry about here," Wilson said. "The best guy is going to play, whether it is one guy, two guys, three guys or four guys. You always want your best players out there at all times."
Other teams simply don't have a single back they can feature the way the Steelers plan to do with Mendenhall.
"You have one guy who can run, but he can't catch," Arians said. "He is a good runner, but we need a receiver on third down. Look at Philadelphia. You don't see LeSean McCoy pass block too much."
One of the things that attracted the Steelers to Mendenhall and one of the reasons they choose him in the first round of the 2008 draft was how he became a complete running back during his junior year at Illinois.
He rushed for 1,681 yards and caught 34 passes while scoring 19 touchdowns for the Illini.
"I think it's because I can do everything well," Mendenhall said. "I did it in college, so I believe they have confidence in me doing all those things."
Mendenhall showed flashes during one of the Steelers' final training camp practices. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit Mendenhall out of the backfield on a swing pass, and he outran the speedy Lawrence Timmons to the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown.
"If we can get him out in space," Roethlisberger said, "we think he can be special."
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