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Steelers' Mendenhall on cusp of stardom

| Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011

FORT WORTH, Texas - Franco Harris is the Steelers' all-time leading rusher and a Hall of Famer. Jerome Bettis is second on the list and could join Harris in Canton by the end of the week.

The two faces of the Steelers franchise when it comes to the running game have something else in common: They are extremely impressed with what 23-year-old Rashard Mendenhall has done in his first season as the team's full-time starting running back.

"I take my hat off to him this year," Harris said. "He has worked with a patchwork line all year, and that is a tough thing to do and be successful doing it."

Despite the obstacle of having four different starters along the offensive line since minicamp was held eight months ago, Mendenhall has thrived as the Steelers approach Super Bowl XLV.

He rushed for 1,273 yards in the regular season, which ranked seventh best in franchise history, and his 13 rushing touchdowns were bettered only by Harris' 14 in 1976.

That's a far cry from Mendenhall getting sidelined early in his rookie season with a broken shoulder, and getting benched for a game against Cincinnati last year for not knowing the playbook.

Mendenhall has been the model of consistency since, including rushing for 167 yards and three touchdowns in his first two playoff games.

Only Merrill Hoge has better numbers over the first two playoff games of his Steelers' career; he rushed for 220 yards and two touchdowns in 1989.

"You are witnessing the maturation process in front of your eyes," Bettis said of Mendenhall. "The first year he was struggling to learn to play the position in the NFL, and now he is making a huge impact in games. That is what we have started to witness."

Playoff success
Rashard Mendenhall's first playoff experience has been a success, even when compared to how some of the Steelers all-time rushers performed in their first two playoff games:
Player Season Att. Yards TD
Merrill Hoge 1989 32 220 2
Rashard Mendenhall 2010 47 167 2
Jerome Bettis 1995 38 145 0
Franco Harris 1972 34 140 0
Willie Parker 2005 33 97 0

On the field, Mendenhall credits his success to hard work. Off the field, he said Bettis and Harris had much to do with how he changed his ways of being a professional.

"Talking to Franco, talking to Jerome, I have learned a lot like how to carry yourself," Mendenhall said.

The three have talked about issues ranging from on- and off-field comportment, handling the spotlight and taking care of your body.

"All of this is passed down as you go along being a member of the Steelers," said Mendenhall, who looked up to Bettis while growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. "It is kind of your responsibility to do that, being a Steelers running back."

Mendenhall may be a more complete running back than Harris and Bettis. He has proven to be one of the best all-purpose runners in the NFL.

He stays on the field for all three downs; he's adept in picking up blitzes; he can catch the ball out of the backfield; and maybe most telling of all, he can run away from defenders or run over them.

"He is explosive, he can hit the home run ball and he has great footwork," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "I thought Jerome had great feet for his size, but I look at some of the cuts Mendenhall is doing and, wow, this guy is real special."

Mendenhall had 15 runs of 15 yards or more during the regular season, but really showed his versatility in the AFC Championship Game against the New York Jets. He ripped off a 35-yard run not long after plowing through Bart Scott for a 1-yard touchdown run.

That series of plays impressed Bettis.

"The league is going in the direction of bigger backs (who) also have the ability to be a game-breaker," Bettis said. "That's what Rashard has. He runs with a lot of power. It is the best of both worlds for him because he has the power, but he also has the speed to get outside and make a big play."

Against Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers' style of attacking defense, big plays are readily available. The Packers allowed 10 runs of 20 yards or longer this year.

"He is doing everything it takes to be a great running back," Bettis said. "He is well on his way to being there."

Colbert doesn't regret keeping Smith on roster

FORT WORTH, Texas -- If it meant losing a promising rookie fourth-round pick for what ends up being nothing in return, Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert would do it all over again.

Veteran defensive end Aaron Smith is highly unlikely to play in Sunday's Super Bowl even after a spot was left open for him on the roster the past 13 weeks. But Colbert has no regrets, even if it did mean losing linebacker Thaddeus Gibson in the process.

"When anybody claims one of your players that you wanted to keep in the fold some way, somehow, sure you're always disappointed," Colbert said. "But you understand that can happen, and those are risks that you have to take."

Smith had surgery to repair a torn triceps muscle in his left arm following the Miami game Oct. 24. Instead of placing him on injured reserve, thus ending his season, the team decided to allow Smith to continue on the roster with the hopes he could return for the playoffs.

To do that, the Steelers needed another defensive lineman. So, they decided to promote Steve McLendon to the active roster and release Gibson with the intention of putting him on the practice squad.

But San Francisco picked up Gibson before he cleared waivers.

"We just felt it was important to have a player like that available to us to the very last moment," Colbert said. "A guy like Aaron Smith being on the roster, it's very important even if he doesn't (play in the Super Bowl) because you had to keep alive that possibility because he is that important."

Smith missed the final 10 games of the regular season and the two playoff games. He's being replaced by former first-rounder Ziggy Hood.

Gibson had three tackles for the 49ers this season.

-- Mark Kaboly

Twitter feed

"Trip started off right got on the plane and won the grab bag 6 stacks in there and the surprise Victory grab bag by my homie k fox had." -- Wallace17 (Mike Wallace).

"Leaving for Dallas soon, on my way to the airport. Where you at @williamgay22 we got some business to care of." -- R_Mendenhall34 (Rashard Mendenhall)

3 questions with Steelers linebacker James Farrior:

What's the toughest part about the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl?

Just all the distractions that go on, dealing with your family, dealing with the travel, dealing with the ticket situation, I definitely think a lot of guys are really up in arms right now about who to give the tickets to and that's probably the biggest problem right now.

Is having the experience of having been through this before important?

I think it helps, I think it definitely helps to have that experience of how it's going to be. We won't spend a lot of time worrying about it because we already know what to expect, we've already been there before. It eases our mind probably a little more than those guys (with Green Bay).

Is there anything you like about the off-the-field part leading up to the game?

No, not really. Not really at all.

Photo Galleries

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Super Bowl Set Up

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The Steelers arrive in Texas

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers arrive in North Texas for Super Bowl XLV on Monday January 31, 2011.

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