October 6, 2012
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It might not have seemed like a significant moment when running back Rashard Mendenhall participated in both indoor practices last week during the off week. After all, he had been practicing almost on a daily basis with the Steelers for more than a month while he continued his recovery and rehabilitation from anterior cruciate ligament surgery on his right knee.
But, when he did, it was one of the final steps the coaches needed to see before they proclaimed him ready -- physically and mentally -- to return to the lineup.
Mendenhall had no trepidation about practicing both days on the indoor facility's artificial turf -- a surface that tends to generate more stress and pounding on the knee. That convinced the coaches, who knew he was physically ready, that he was mentally ready, as well.
Mendenhall will make his return against the Eagles, his first game since he tore the ACL on New Year's Day in Cleveland.,
"That's just part of it," Mendenhall said about practicing. "Each day is a unique day. That was one of those days where it feels good and continues to feel good.
"For me, I've been taking steps accordingly, so I feel confident in everything I've been able to do. And the next step is getting out there, and I'm confident in that. The game will kind of tell its own tale."
The return of Mendenhall, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, comes at a good time.
The Steelers have struggled in the running game, ranking 31st in the league and averaging just 65 yards rushing in three games. Worse, Mendenhall's replacements, Isaac Redman and Joanthan Dwyer, have averaged just 2.4 yards per carry and don't have a run longer than 13 yards.
That has been one of Mendenhall's signatures. In the past three seasons, he has had 23 runs of 20 yards or longer, including 11 in 2010.
"I thought he has looked good for a couple of weeks," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "You could tell he was gaining confidence and moving around pretty well. Like I said from the start, he is a heck of a football player. He is a difference-maker. The more of those you can have on the field, the better."
"It's awesome, man," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "He's a great back. He has speed and explosion. It gives us another force back there to go with the backs we already have."
The Steelers will waste little finding out about Mendenhall because he is expected to start against the Eagles.
Still, he likely will be rotated with the other backs Haley has employed in the first three games, at least for now.
"He will give us pretty good feedback through his actions, with how he is doing," Haley said.
"We will see how it goes."
Either way, Mendenhall is ready for his return, physically and mentally.
"There are little things to stepping back out here, from making certain cuts to getting in the game to getting hit on [the knee]," Mendenhall said. "It's just a progression that I'm preparing myself for.
"Periodically, there are different cuts, different movements -- making a jump cut where you weren't even thinking about it -- things like that are just steps toward being able to do everything you're asked to do as a running back."