PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 17: Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers dives in for a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns during the game on October 17 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall bounced to the outside, one of those unpredictable moves a running back must make routinely, trusting his legs to handle the stress of constant change of direction with ease.
Unfortunately for Mendenhall, it was one time his prize-back legs didn't follow the plan.
He crumpled to the ground along the right sideline, clutching his right knee. Without any contact initiating the fall, the immediate reaction was one of dread - it had to be his anterior cruciate ligament.
Fears were confirmed the following day; the Steelers leading rusher had indeed torn his ACL, and with the playoffs scheduled to begin in Denver the following week, the worry wasn't whether Mendenhall would miss that game against the Broncos - indeed he would - but rather, he may miss the next game against the Broncos.
Week 1 of the 2012 season.
On the other side of the ball, Steelers veteran NT Casey Hampton had the same issue as Mendenhall one week later. Hampton has experience with torn ACLs, having missed the 2004 season with the same injury. Working against him is the fact he's 34 years old, and outweighs Mendenhall by a generously listed 120 pounds.
Jason Spray, the associate strength coach at Middle Tennessee State University, has seen his share of ACL injuries. As a fullback at MTSU, he had reconstructive knee surgery, but recovered well enough to continue playing, and eventually, be named as a captain for the Blue Raiders' Sun Belt Conference championship team.
Spray, speaking generally in regard to Mendenhall, noted the rehabilitation process for a torn ACL is more mental than anything.
"If it's a clean tear, as in its just the ACL and not the lateral meniscus (the shock absorber of the knee), the rehab process is pretty clear," he said. "It's a grind, but once the tear has healed, it becomes much more mental. It's a grind, you have to work very hard to get the strength of those muscles back."
In Mendenhall's case, all accounts suggest it was a clean tear, and he's likely well absorbed into the grind part of the process, as Spray described.
Part of "grind" means "a large amount of time." So much so, Spray (not speaking on behalf of Mendenhall, but rather to the general nature of the injury) says Mendenhall's recovery will come, but it may not be until the season is underway.
Hampton, who's almost the polar opposite of Mendenhall in terms of size and conditioning, may be a different story.
"I'm not saying (Hampton) isn't a hard worker, but as we age, we gain mass," Spray said. "If he hasn't been active, or if he's gained that mass, it could be an issue."
Hampton's had weight and conditioning concerns in the past, in the eyes of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. In 2008, Hampton failed the conditioning test given to each player at the start of camp, and was placed on the physically unable to perform list.
The Steelers agreed to guarantee the balance of Hampton's contract for the 2012 season, as Hampton agreed to reduce that salary to $2.8 million (from $4.89 million). Essentially, both sides agreed this is likely his last year in Pittsburgh. With the emergence of NT Steve McLendon, and the 4th round selection of rookie NT Alameda Ta'amu, the Steelers have at least some insurance against the possibility Hampton may not be ready to go in Week 1. Maybe longer. Considering his age and years of battling in the trenches, it may just be that Hampton - highly likely to begin training camp on the PUP list - works his way back by the season's quarter pole.
All in all, Mendenhall and Hampton should feel lucky it was an ACL injury, and not an Achilles injury, like Steelers RT Willie Colon and Ravens DL Terrell Suggs. Spray noted those injuries are the ones he really worries about in his profession.
Referring to the Achilles as a "ticking time bomb," you never know when they'll explode. And when they do, the recovery process is slow, but the most detrimental part of it is just how huge a part the Achilles plays in an athlete's overall ability to perform.
Not helping the matters for Suggs, and what was no doubt a challenge for Colon, is the size of both men. Colon is listed at 315 pounds and Suggs is listed at 270.
"The Achilles is so important for an athlete to plant and explode," Spray said. "Suggs weighs 270 pounds, it'll be tough for him to come back from. The Achilles is largest and strongest tendon in the body."
There was some speculation surrounding whether Suggs' Achilles was complete torn, or just partially torn. Spray said the difference between a full tear and a partial one is significant, but it's still a long recovery process.
Suggs has said it's a partial tear, and he hopes to return to the Ravens in October.
"Suggs is a guy who feeds off people doubting him," Spray said. "But just the natural size and strength he has, I question whether it will hold up."
Spray said he worked with an athlete at MTSU who had ruptured his Achilles in high school. He wound up at MTSU instead of Georgia, who was recruiting him, because of the injury, and noted it took that player about a year to get back to where he was in terms of speed and strength. That player wasn't 30 years old and wasn't carrying 270 pounds.
Colon tore his Achilles in the off-season, much like Suggs did, and Colon was able to participate in minicamp, OTAs and training camp the following season. In his first game back, Colon tore a triceps muscle, and missed the remainder of the 2011 season.
In that regard, Colon's triceps injury may have been a little bit helpful. With another year to continue working on that range of motion - the early key to the rehab process, according to Spray - the tendon can get stronger and he can be closer to where he was in 2009, when he was one of the better right tackles in the game.
Spray has a connection to the Steelers and the Ravens. He worked with former Steelers LB Chris McCoy (a training camp cut in 2011) last season, and helped Ravens CB Cary Williams go from a roster afterthought to a 16-game starter.
Williams' story seems to be one of the few indicating positive growth due to the lockout. Spray said Williams' wife is from Murfreesboro, Tenn., Spray's home, and Williams contacted him when he was staying there during the lockout. With Spray's help, Williams went from 190 pounds to 210, all while losing body fat.
"His main goal was to be in the best shape possible for training camp," Spray said. "He came here every day and worked his butt off."
With the benefit of a few injuries among the Ravens secondary, Williams became the starter, and now, with that experience, he adds to a Ravens secondary that's getting deeper with each passing year.
Spray has also worked extensively with MTSU product and Packers ILB Erik Walden, a player who was cut by Dallas and Miami before landing in Green Bay and eventually earning a starting position.
Walden was accused of domestic assault in 2011 (charges were later dropped), something Spray feels is way out of character in comparison to the guy he knows and has worked with over the last few years.
"He's a great kid," Spray said. "He also works very hard, and when he's focused, he can be a great football player."
Spray doesn't openly recruit pro players to work with him, but in players circles, names of guys who can produce results like Spray has get around. He's also worked with former Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb (MTSU alum) and former Titans CB Reynaldo Hill.
"Working with pro-level guys is amazing," Spray said. "They're thoroughbreds. "The NFL is amazing."