Balancing Act: Rashard Mendenhall Brings Equilibrium To Steelers Offense

Mimi McCannCorrespondent IOctober 5, 2009

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 4:  Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs the ball after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 hands him the ball in the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field on October 4, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

I can't remember the last time that I was so thrilled to be completely wrong.

Maybe my estimation that Gwen Stefani's career would have the shelf life of a snowflake in July was further off the mark, but I had honestly given up on Rashard Mendenhall.

Mendenhall has in no way reached Stefani's golden career status with just one victory, but the climb merely to where he is today has not been easy.

From the outset of his career, the excitement that the Steelers had drafted a big, strong back as their first pick in 2008 was not shared by all. They had chosen a player for his athleticism instead of opting to fill some glaring voids on their roster.  

Mendenhall's reputation immediately began to erode following a preseason bout of fumble-itis.   

His first career NFL start last season brought an end to his season after a hit by the Ravens' Ray Lewis resulted in Mendenhall fracturing his shoulder.

It would not be the broken shoulder that would add fuel to pessimistic feelings toward Mendenhall, but rather the cold shoulder that he reportedly turned toward his involvement throughout the season at the Steelers' practice facility.

An image was beginning to congeal of a young man with his head in the clouds, and his performance at the start of the 2009 season only hastened the rush toward an unfavorable conclusion.

Mendenhall was a bust.

He ran the wrong way into Ben Roethlisberger on his first carry of the 2009 season.

Sparks of the talent that had earned him his status as a first-round pick, flared up momentarily in Chicago only to be trampled by the report that he would be benched for the Cincinnati game for "not being on the details" according to coach Mike Tomlin.

A consensus formed and we, who just months ago had hesitated using the "B" word to describe Mendenhall were suddenly using it to describe the whole draft class of 2008.

What else were we to think? Not counting Mewelde Moore, the options at running back looked dire.

It was time for grasping at straws and the activation of preseason phenom, Isaac Redman was big news.

Coach Kirby Wilson had his hands full last week: Get Willie Parker and his turf toe ready to go against San Diego, shore up the tattered confidence of the sensitive and yet easily distracted Mendenhall and finally, prepare an untested, undrafted rookie running back from Bowie State to step up to the plate if all other options go up in smoke.

Option one proved impossible, but Mendenhall was able to deliver with such determination and poise that option three now becomes as far fetched to the casual observer as it has been all along to the Steelers' coaching staff.

Errors made by Stefan Logan and Ryan Mundy underscore the vulnerability of putting so much hope on the shoulders of untested players.

Both men made a noteworthy effort in the preseason, particularly Stefan Logan as he was able to showcase his return skills.  

Yet under the pressure of the regular season both men made costly mistakes and they, more than the defense, handed the Chargers 14 points in the fourth quarter which kept San Diego's hopes alive until the final seconds of the game.

Mendenhall's contribution on the Steelers' final drive was critical to their victory. He finally came through in the clutch and had it gone the other way, would have buried the Steelers under an avalanche of fourth-quarter meltdown criticism.

So stunning was Mendenhall's debut that he will be deservedly receiving the lion's share of the praise. Just as stunning was how close that the game became late in the fourth quarter and yet, I believe that we are seeing an entire team that is working very hard to improve their game.

Lingering problems are being addressed.

Chris Kemoeatu and the offensive line played their hearts out as they dominated the line of scrimmage, Bruce Arians showed that he knows a whole lot about offensive strategy, Jeff Reed kicked a 46-yard field goal, and James Harrison iced the game by stripping the ball from Phillip Rivers' hands in the closing seconds.

Solutions to any one of those problems should help to galvanize Steeler Nation, but the icing on the cake was the dominant performance of Rashard Mendenhall.

I applaud his ability to focus on his job though so many around him felt him to be incapable of such a task.

Just when I had decided that the Steelers were wrong to pick Mendenhall, he showed that he has the ability and determination make a positive difference for the team.