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LAST SEPTEMBER, A HEALTHY RASHARD MENDENHALL SPENT ALL 60 MINUTES OF THE STEELERS' WEEK 3 LOSS IN CINCINNATI WATCHING FROM THE SIDELINE, a punishment delivered by coach Mike Tomlin for not being "on the details" during the previous week of practice. Motivated by the benching, Mendenhall just one week later rushed for 165 yards (or 62 more than his career total to that point) and two touchdowns against San Diego in his second pro start.
The breakout game—and eventual breakout season—finally arrived for the 2008 first-round pick when he was given a chance. "[The San Diego game] was really just a matter of opportunity," says Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009. "Everything that had happened up to that point had me ready to play."
Based on his success last year and the situation around him this season, Mendenhall seems ready for an even bigger year. With the early-season absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (suspended for up to six games for off-the-field transgressions) and the arrival of top offensive-line prospect Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh figures to return to a run-first philosophy, at least through October. In addition, the team cast off former starter Willie Parker and added only one running back in the draft (sixth-round pick Jonathan Dwyer), strongly suggesting that this is Mendenhall's team. And, entering his third year, he is far from reaching his ceiling. He's 23 years old and, because of an early-season shoulder injury as a rookie, has had just 288 NFL touches from scrimmage.
After Parker went down with a toe injury late in that Cincinnati loss, the Steelers plugged Mendenhall into the starting lineup, and no one on the staff was surprised at his acceleration from zero to 165 in seven days. "He's a natural runner," says running backs coach Kirby Wilson. "He has vision, he has very good instincts and burst, he changes directions really well, and he accelerates very well when he makes those cuts."
Even after Parker returned, Mendenhall had little trouble holding on to the starting job. He averaged 100.8 scrimmage yards per game from Week 4 on, sixth best in the NFL during that span. "You could see the confidence growing," recalls receiver Hines Ward.
By Week 15 Mendenhall was not only the feature back on early downs, but he had also taken third-down reps from veteran Mewelde Moore. In 26 games as the feature back under offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Parker caught 26 passes. Mendenhall caught 25 passes in 16 games last year (just 12 as the starter), and his 10.4 yards per catch was third best in the NFL among the 45 running backs with at least 20 receptions.
While Pittsburgh won't commit to a third-down back this early (Moore is still on the roster), "the likelihood of [Mendenhall] catching multiple passes every game is very good," Wilson says. "We like him as a receiver, and we expect to use him quite a bit this season."
Even Tomlin isn't shy about heaping expectations on Mendenhall. "I think he had a productive season," he told reporters in March. "I think he's capable of a lot more, to be quite honest with you."