Rashard Mendenhall makes strong case for increased role with Steelers against Browns in week 17

Jared Wickerham

As a former starting ball carrier nearly ran himself out of town by sitting still, he is taking the proper steps to climb out of the pit that he dug for himself.

By the time the Cincinnati Bengals stepped onto Heinz Field in week 16, the Pittsburgh Steelers were done talking.

If loose lips sink ships, open mouths swallow them whole. Ben Roethlisberger spent the week on damage control, for inadvertently calling out his offensive coordinator in an interview immediately following a frustrating loss that ultimately came by his hand. His performance proved that humility would be required in conjunction with apologies. No one man is above human imperfection. No one player is ever better than his team, when his team must suffer his failures in spite of the glories. However, this lesson in personal responsibility was still overshadowed by the personal protests of Rashard Mendenhall.

Mendenhall's feelings on his personal reputation in the eye of the Steelers organization and its fanbase have been well documented. He feels that he will never escape his twitter incident as long as he plays in Pittsburgh. He allowed what he believed the fans to perceive of him, to define the mindset of the coaches about him. This confusion took an unfortunate turn as the events of the regular season conveniently fell in a line parallel with his train of thought.

As he missed the first 3 games of the regular season, the running game struggled as the offensive line learned to live without David DeCastro, and Willie Colon leaned to play a new position. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman failed to produce consistent results as they split carries with Baron Batch, and Chris Rainey. The by-committee approach resulted in cold backs taking pressure carries ending up as fumbles or failed short yardage conversions. The Steelers anxiously awaited their best back to save their offense.

For one game, Mendenhall did just that. He started his first game against the Eagles, as the Steelers came off their 4th week bye. The running game did appear upgraded as Mendenhall looked like a hungrier version of his younger self. He played so well in fact, that little ado was made about a football that he fumbled as he ran alone down the field on one of his longer runs of the day. No contact, no defenders; simply a fumbled ball that rolled out of bounds appearing to have no consequence.

The coaching staff that had to deactivate Dwyer to make room for a healthy Mendenhall, and somewhere along the lines it was rumored to have been because of Dwyer's lost fumble against the Raiders, a loss dictated by numerous blunders by multiple perpetrators. Yet, Dwyer was the only one to lose his playing time, allegedly as a result. Dwyer accepted the situation for what it was, and patiently awaited his next opportunity.

He got that opportunity in week 7, after Mendenhall injured his heel against the Titans in week 6, and Isaac Redman was also unavailable because of his own injury from the same game. Dwyer redeemed himself with a gutsy, hard-fought performance, becoming the first Steelers back to exceed 100 yards in a single game this season. As Mendenhall continued to recover, Dwyer led a second successful campaign against the Redskins, again eclipsing the 100 yard mark. Coincidentally, the Steelers won both games as Dwyer made the most of his heavy workload.

However, Dwyer pulled a quad towards the end of the game, and the duties fell to Redman. While Redman didn't set the world on fire carrying the ball, he had an excellent day catching the ball out of the backfield, helping the Steelers defeat the Giants. Mendenhall still sat.

The Steelers offense fell on hard times afterwards, as Roethlisberger was lost against the Chiefs, and Byron Leftwich was lost the following week against the Ravens. As the passing game struggled due to the revolving door at quarterback, opposing defenses loaded up against the run, forcing the passer-du-jour into pressure situations. Mendenhall returned for the first game against the Ravens in Pittsburgh, casting his lots to help Leftwich suffer through broken ribs, but to no avail. Mendenhall's involvement did not ignite the running game like some had hoped.

Even though Dwyer had been the most productive back statistically when healthy and Mendenhall was not quite as spry as he was in week 5 coming back from an ACL injury; Mendenhall retained his starting job as the team headed to Cleveland. Fumbling had become an issue since Dwyer's deactivation and the follies of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. A benching policy was instituted to emphasize a need for ball control. The first man to break the rule was Rashard Mendenhall.

The next man up was Redman by seniority, who quickly fumbled himself. The torch was then handed to Dwyer, who carried the hopes of Steeler Nation with him. Dwyer too fumbled, as did Chris Rainey. When every back on the roster had dropped the ball when given the opportunity, things started back at the top. Mendenhall was given another shot, as the Steelers clung to a close game in Cleveland; which he quickly fumbled away. To prove a point to the man and the team, Mendenhall lost his starting job for failing to protect the ball.

Where Mendenhall became confused is when the Steelers deactivated him for the following week as the team headed to Baltimore for a rematch against the Ravens. The team had multiple injury related issues at multiple positions, and someone had to sit much like Dwyer did in weeks 4 through 6. Dwyer had been demoted for his fumble, but only deactivated because his roster spot was needed; same with Mendenhall.

As the Steelers started their third passer Charlie Batch, who himself threw three interceptions in the Browns Blunder Bowl, the Ravens again loaded up against the rush, as the offensive line started a rookie right tackle in Kelvin Beachum, and Colon missed with knee problems. The Steelers won the game, but not because of their ability to run the ball. However, Dwyer and Redman had failed to lose approval to the coaches, and retained their spots on the depth chart moving into the next game.

Mendenhall was going to be deactivated yet again. Rational explanations revolved around Tomlin's expectations of reaching the playoffs and his hopes of Mendenhall's healthy participation in the post-season. Roethlisberger was returning from a freak injury, and the team was expected to rely heavily on the running game to ease the franchise quarterback back into rhythm; yet with five other backs including Will Johnson, Mendenhall was deactivated for his roster spot to be used elsewhere, like along the offensive line who was now dealing with the losses of Colon, Marcus Gilbert, and Mike Adams.

Mendenhall mistook his deactivation as a resonance of his misguided perceptions. He felt that the Steelers were making a statement on his standing with them. He returned volley with a protest of his own, by failing to show up for that eventual loss to the Chargers. His actions swiftly earned a one week suspension by the team for detrimental conduct, but Tomlin never voiced a surrender over his troubled player. Mendenhall, if able to return from his punishment with the proper attitude, mindset, and work ethic, he would be given another opportunity to redeem himself, both on the field and in the public eye.

That opportunity came in the next game following his return from exile, against the Bengals this past Sunday. While Dwyer retained his starting role, Mendenhall was worked into the gameplan. On this day, Mendenhall shut his mouth, and let his play do the talking.

He exceeded Dwyer's yardage, while receiving a minority share of the workload. He showed familiar flashes as he accumulated over half of the teams rushing yards for the day. And, with zero fumbles.

When asked about Mendenhall's status after the game, Tomlin simply reiterated what he had said before. Mendenhall had to prove himself worthy of his team's trust. Tomlin's opinion on Mendenhall wouldn't be stated through a microphone. That only causes problems, and hyperbolizes volatile situations. Tomlin's opinion came in the form of eleven carries; 3 fewer than starter Dwyer, and 8 more than former number two, Redman.

Expect little else to be said on the situation in the upcoming week, except that Mendenhall will play as big of a role in the final game against the Browns in week 17, if not an even bigger one. Considering Mendenhall's contract expires upon the conclusion of the season, he will need to make the most of this final opportunity if he hopes to catch the eyes of prospective suitors.

But, if he happens to start the game, or significantly outshine his peers one last time, he may find himself receiving a significant offer to remain with the team he has played for his entire career, and in a city that he felt no longer wanted him.

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