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Galax Steeler
08-13-2009, 06:21 AM
Tonight, it's all about the binoculars. NFL exhibition games, especially first ones, are never about the winning and rarely about the starters, who play little.

This night belongs to the rookies, the unknowns and the untested, along with veteran free agents (of which the Steelers annually have few). Those who harbor the most attention are first-round draft choices.

And this season, the Steelers have three -- one from each of Mike Tomlin's tenure as their coach -- who have reasons of their own for tonight's game being significant against the Arizona Cardinals.

So more Heinz Field binoculars likely will be focused on rookie defensive end Ziggy Hood, second-year running back Rashard Mendenhall and third-year linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

For Hood, it's his first professional game. For Mendenhall, it's another step on his comeback trail after his rookie season ended early with a crushing blow from Ray Lewis. And for Timmons, he finally steps into the starting lineup after becoming the Steelers' only No. 1 draft pick to fail to win a starting job in his first two seasons since tackle Jamain Stephens, drafted in 1996.

Timmons, though, was excellent as a nickel back last season and his coaches expect that to continue as he takes over at inside linebacker for Larry Foote.

Hood's first training camp has gone well as he has shown why the Steelers drafted him No. 1.

"He hasn't disappointed in that regard," Tomlin said. "Doesn't mean that his play is above the line just yet. We will probably know a bit more Friday morning."

Mendenhall, on the other hand, remains an enigma. Is he the big-time back that prompted the Steelers to draft him in 2008, overjoyed he lasted until their pick at No. 23? Or is he the ordinary back he appeared to be in his two training camps and early last season before his shoulder was fractured in the fourth game?

That process resumes tonight, a game Mendenhall could start because Willie Parker missed several days of practice this week with what was described as back spasms.

"I expect the jump from him that I expect from all second-year players to take," Tomlin said. "This is his second lap around the track in terms of being a professional athlete and pro football player. ... He acts like a guy who has been here before, a guy who is ready to burst onto the scene, a guy who is willing to put his hand in the pile and help us win."

It often is difficult to fully evaluate running backs in modern training camps because of the lack of live hitting. Mendenhall has gone through two live snaps in camp, two runs from the 1-yard line in a goal-line team drill Sunday against the first-team defense. He was stuffed once and thrown for a 3-yard loss the other time. That drill is traditionally unfair to the offense.

The Steelers still are not sure what they have in Mendenhall.

"The key for him, like all young guys, they have to play," said Kirby Wilson, who coaches the Steelers' backs. "He's still trying to develop a style -- who he is, what kind of runner he's going to be in this league, his style, and the whole key."

That cannot happen in practice.

"To do that is to play and to get touches," Wilson said. "I'm sure all those things will occur come Thursday night. The more he plays, the more he'll identify who he is, and all of us -- myself included -- we can say, OK, this is who he is, this is his style, this is what we can expect from him every week. Until we see it week-in and week-out, he's still a mystery man."

Mendenhall, the team's only running back drafted in the first round since Tim Worley in 1989, led the Steelers last preseason with 222 yards rushing. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry and scored one touchdown. He rushed 19 times for 58 yards in the regular season before his early exit.

"In the preseason you figure out what works and what doesn't in this league," Mendenhall said. "You're able to be a little more loose, try things, try moves; that's what I think the preseason is for. I feel good about that and was able to learn about that.

"At the beginning of the season last year I felt like I was season-ready. As far as this year coming around, I feel like I'm ready to go."

That first hit will carry no special meaning for him, despite what happened on his last hit.

"No, because since I put on pads I haven't felt anything in my shoulder at all. We hit Big Bertha every day and that's no slouch, so I really don't even think about my shoulder anymore."

Big Bertha, the big tackling dummy the running backs use at practice, never hits back. Starting tonight, Mendenhall will remember what that's like, and his coaches are more interested in his response than all those binoculars that will have him in their sights.

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09225/990546-66.stm

BlastFurnace
08-13-2009, 07:56 AM
He's the guy I want to see the most. Every single beat write who has watched him that I read (Ed B., Lolley, and Wexell) have all said that Mendenhall has not stood out. I am optimistic that Mendenhall will be a solid RB for us. He needs to show something this year because this team needs to make a decision about Parker.

The Lakelander
08-13-2009, 08:18 AM
He's the guy I want to see the most. Every single beat write who has watched him that I read (Ed B., Lolley, and Wexell) have all said that Mendenhall has not stood out. I am optimistic that Mendenhall will be a solid RB for us. He needs to show something this year because this team needs to make a decision about Parker.

He sure stood out during the first day of practice! I saw him put a move on a defender in the flat that had the entire crowd go "oooohhhhh!"

I'll say it again ... Mendenhall is going to be fine! He flashed enough last year for us to realize this. This first pre-season game means nothing as far as Rashard is concerned.

I'm more interested in watching Justin Vincent, Isaac Redman, and Frank Summers, all of whom have real NFL potential! These guys are BIG BIG RB's! Because if we don't sign Parker after this season one of those guys could become a viable element to our future. We need tertiary depth behind Parker and Mendenhall this year!

Don't count out Justin Vincent .... he's built like Barry Foster ... exactly like Foster!