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Steelers Rashard Mendenhall has led Pittsburgh in controversy, now must lead them on the field

Whether it's just in practice or in a starting role, Rashard Mendenhall must rebound from his suspension to at least get the Steelers' offense ready for a Week 16 playoff game against the Bengals.

Justin Edmonds

With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lighting the match on the powder keg of media-driven controversy, and a defense that's simply not going to get the job done with the lack of depth at cornerback injuries have created, it's possible this week's game against Cincinnati - and with it, the Steelers' rollercoaster 2012 season - rests on the shoulders of the Steelers Czar of Controversy, running back Rashard Mendenhall.

While the national media sink their fangs into "Ben v. Haley," most overlook how deeply they devoured Mendenhall's opinions on 9/11. The locals slather the wide receivers with hot sauce and dig into the wide receivers just one game after Mendenhall apparently chose to not show up on the sideline for the Steelers' loss to San Diego.

Mendenhall represents something the Steelers touched on for a brief period this season, and let go; a consistent running game.

We can dip into the usual Chicken vs. The Egg argument of whichever comes first, running ability or space to operate (impossible to ignore the fact the Steelers ran for 4.8 yards a carry when left guard Willie Colon and right tackle Mike Adams were both in the lineup, equally silly to overlook the production of the running backs in the time Mendenhall has been inactive).

The fact is, the Steelers beat the Bengals with two things; running the ball and stopping the run.

Sounds an awful lot like a New York Jets team right around the 2010 AFC Championship game. The Steelers put their game plan on Mendenhall, and he delivered.

He was delivering in the Super Bowl as well, and if not for a poorly timed fumble (to put it mildly), the Steelers looked well in control of continuing to run all over Green Bay. In that scenario, Mendenhall is the MVP.

It wasn't to be, and we've moved on, but we've seen Mendenhall become a very effective weapon. He must do that this week.

It's going to be an old-fashioned game (Pittsburgh Steelers Tickets), and Cincinnati has improved greatly in both of these areas since the last time they played. Mendenhall has been reinstated to the roster after serving his one-game suspension for failing to appear at Heinz Field for the Steelers' Week 14 game, and he very well could get the start for their Week 15 game.

If he doesn't, odds are good he will be on the sideline. That's important, but what's vital to the team this week is how they practice. Mendenhall has the most carries of any back on the roster, he's played in the most games. He needs to accept his leadership role, and work himself as if he's going to be the starter.

If he's doing that, and he's doing it well, he very well may, in fact, be the team's featured player Sunday.