Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- A week ago, Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall reached the most embarrassing point of his brief NFL career.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin noticed a player who wasn’t focused. Mendenhall’s practices were so poor that Tomlin didn’t trust his 2008 first-round pick to take a single snap on offense during Pittsburgh’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Mendenhall instead was relegated to special teams.
The message from Tomlin was clear: Regardless of pedigree, young players have to earn their spot to contribute for the defending Super Bowl champions.
Mendenhall had the type of game that would make Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris proud.
For the first time in his career Mendenhall looked like a Steelers tailback, punishing San Diego defenders to the tune of 165 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns -- all career highs. He did most of his damage between the tackles and had no problem lowering his previously injured shoulder to get the tough yards.
It was the perfect way to rebound from a tough week and, until Sunday, an uninspiring start to the 2009 season.
"I’ve never had doubts about myself," Mendenhall said. "I’ve been confident and calm and waiting on a chance and an opportunity. For me to get knocked down and have to regroup and come back next season, this is all I’ve been working towards."
Tomlin disciplined Mendenhall but said that he wouldn’t hold any grudges against him in this game. A week after not giving Mendenhall any carries, Tomlin felt comfortable enough to use Mendenhall as his workhorse by giving him the football 31 times (29 rushes, two receptions).
"He had a good week of practice," Tomlin said. "I’m not going to take any credit [for] that. I didn’t rush for a yard tonight. He did a nice job."
With Mendenhall igniting the running game, Pittsburgh put together its most complete performance on offense this season.
In addition to Mendenhall, the Steelers also had a 100-yard receiver (Hines Ward) and a 300-yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger). After Pittsburgh led San Diego 28-0 early in the third quarter, you got the sense the Steelers could do anything they wanted offensively. Pittsburgh averaged only 15.7 points per game in the first three weeks, but only punted twice against San Diego.
The Steelers were sloppy in the end and allowed the Chargers to get within a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. But the offense continued to gain yards and put points on the board for the win.
"Together we got a lot of weapons out on the field," Ward said. "I think today we showcased to a lot of teams in the NFL that offensively, if we continue to stay on the grind the way we do, we can have a nice offense."
Added Roethlisberger on the offensive performance: “We always knew that we had it in us.”
But no player proved himself more than Mendenhall. He smashed his career total of 103 rushing yards with one standout performance.
Mendenhall also showed good hands catching the football out of the backfield with two receptions for 26 yards. Another telling play was a crushing block he put on blitzing Chargers linebacker Kevin Burnett in the first half.
All the tools were on display.
“I feel like I’m a complete player and complete back as far as blocking and catching and running,” Mendenhall said. “Those are all things that are important at this level. The more you can do, the more valuable you are to the team.”
Mendenhall’s timing couldn’t be better.
Pittsburgh desperately needed a win and improved to 2-2, and the team has a pair of winnable games coming up against the Detroit Lions (1-3) and Cleveland Browns (0-4). Starting tailback Willie Parker is ailing with a toe injury and in the final year of his contract. Unless Parker, who turns 29 next month, has a monster run in the final 12 games, he probably will become a free agent in the offseason.
Whether this performance was the beginning of the Rashard Mendenhall era in Pittsburgh remains to be seen. But on this night, the light certainly came on for Mendenhall and provided hope for the future of Pittsburgh’s running game.