Mendenhall: 2011 a 'great' year
Sunday, January 01, 2012
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Blamed by many for the loss in Super Bowl XLV, called a "fumble machine" by teammate James Harrison, reviled by much of America for his sympathetic views about Osama bin Laden and considered an underachiever by a lot of people for failing to do more this season, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall had this to say the other day about his 2011:
"It's been a great year, an incredible year."
Let me try to explain with Mendenhall's help. I know, it won't be easy.
But it's not the least bit difficult to imagine 2012 getting off to a great, incredible start for Mendenhall and, subsequently, the Steelers, beginning with the game today at Cleveland Stadium against the Browns. That, too, I will try to explain.
Mendenhall's 2011 started just fine, actually. He scored two touchdowns in a playoff win against the Baltimore Ravens and a third in the AFC championship game win against the New York Jets, all on short, powerful runs. But the play everyone remembers is his fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLV. The Steelers had cut the Green Bay Packers' lead to 21-17 on his 8-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and were driving for the go-ahead score when he fumbled on a second-and-2 play from the Packers 33.
"I don't look at that play like everyone else does," Mendenhall said.
He looks at it as a great play by Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who put his helmet on the ball and sent it flying.
"I was protecting the ball ... I never saw him," Mendenhall said.
The fumble was huge in the Steelers' 31-25 loss and led to the observation by Harrison in a July article in Men's Journal. Harrison later apologized and said his comments were taken out of context, although it's pretty hard to imagine how "fumble machine" could be misinterpreted. Regardless, Mendenhall said: "James and I are friends. It's no problem. It was never a problem."
Mendenhall's tweets in May after bin Laden's death were a big problem and prompted national outrage. He questioned how people could hate a man they never met and wondered how they could celebrate the death of another human being. He also speculated others -- not just bin Laden -- might have been responsible for the 9/11 disasters.
"I don't regret anything," Mendenhall said. "Anything that happens to you in life -- good or bad -- is a learning experience. I learned a lot."
In order, Mendenhall said he learned:
• The media is a powerful force in creating public opinion.
• Who his friends are.
"If you never go through tough situations, you aren't going to grow as a person," Mendenhall said. "I learned a lot about people. I respect their opinions. But nothing they say really bothers me. Nothing on the outside affects me."
That includes those who say Mendenhall hasn't carried his fair share of the load this season. His 116-yard performance on Christmas Eve in the 27-0 win against the St. Louis Rams was just his second 100-yard game of the season. He needs 110 yards today against the Browns to reach 1,000. That's quite a fall from last season when he rushed for 1,273 yards and from 2009 when he had 1,108.
Two things need to be pointed out. One, Mendenhall has 104 fewer carries -- 220 -- this season than he did in '10. He missed the game against the Tennessee Titans in October because of a hamstring injury, the only game he has missed the past three seasons. And two, he still is scoring touchdowns. He has nine this season after getting 13 in the regular season last year and seven in '09. Scoring touchdowns is the most important thing a running back does.
"It would be great to get 1,000 yards because that's the staple of a great season," Mendenhall said. "But if I end up with 990, it still will be a great season for me. I know I've done everything I can to help this team win. The improvement I've made ... I'm a better football player now than I've ever been."
Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said he sees it every time he turns on the game tapes. "He understands our blocking schemes better than he ever has." He mentioned Mendenhall's vision. "Some of his best runs are for 3 yards because he's so good at making the first guy miss at the point of attack." He talked about Mendenhall's speed, which he showed on a 52-yard run and a 35-yard catch-and-run against the Rams. "He has a gear that people don't realize."
Mendenhall is on a bit of a nice roll. Before the Rams game, he ran for 64 yards on 15 carries against the San Francisco 49ers' No.1-rated run defense. The game before that, he ran for 76 yards on 18 carries against the Browns on a night when the Steelers needed their run game because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played the second half on his injured ankle.
"He's running hard and he's running fast," Arians said of Mendenhall.
The timing couldn't be better, for Mendenhall and for the Steelers. Even though he is signed through the 2012 season, he is playing for his next contract with the team. The Steelers like to extend the contracts of their top players before they get into their final season.
"I would think he'll be a high priority for us," Arians said. "He's got freakish skills and he's very young."
Mendenhall is 24.
Expect to see plenty of him today against the Browns' 30th-rated run defense, especially because Roethlisberger still is much less than full-go.
Expect to see plenty of Mendenhall in the postseason.
"We've tried to keep his workload down to keep him fresh," Arians said. "He's healthy and ready to go. He should be able to carry us a long way."
Not to mention set himself up for a truly great, incredible year.
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