The Pittsburgh Steelers chose Rashard Mendenhall with the 23rd overall selection in the 2008 NFL Draft. The hope was that Mendenhall would complement the running ability of Willie Parker in the backfield, to create a potent running game that would feature both the bruising style of Mendenhall, to go along with the speed and finesse of Willie Parker. When the 2008 preseason began, expectations for the Steelers’ ground game were high. Mendenhall disappointed, and struggled with ball security. In his first four preseason games, Mendenhall fumbled three times.
When the 2008 regular season began, Mendenhall was listed as the number two halfback behind Willie Parker. The rookie would get his first opportunity to start in a Week 4 Monday Night Football contest against the Baltimore Ravens, after Parker sustained an injury earlier in the week. Mendenhall rushed for 30 yards on nine carries, before he was forced to leave the game with a shoulder fracture. The injury caused the Steelers to place Mendenhall on Injured Reserve, thereby ending his rookie season prematurely. The lack of success and disappointment in his rookie campaign had many people questioning Mendenhall’s ability and toughness. Some went even as far to say that he was a draft bust.
The struggles for Rashard Mendenhall continued when the 2009 NFL season got underway. Despite showing flashes of promise in a Week 2 loss against the Chicago Bears, where he rushed for 39 yards on just three carries, Mendenhall was benched for the Week 3 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals for having a poor week of practice. However, a turf toe injury to Willie Parker opened the door for Rashard Mendenhall to get the second start of his career in a Sunday Night Football game against the San Diego Chargers.
It was a game that the Pittsburgh Steelers had to win after two weeks of excruciating losses. The Steelers got the win, and much was due to the play of Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall played brilliantly rushing for 165 yards and two touchdowns. The second-year halfback ran with power and determination. Finally, fans got the chance to see the potential greatness that Mendenhall can bring to the position. Late in the fourth quarter, after a flurry of San Diego scores got them within a touchdown of tying the game, the Steelers turned to Mendenhall to close the game. He did just that, leading the Steelers’ charge down the field and picking up first downs along the way. Jeff Reed would eventually kick a field goal, which put the game out of reach. Steelers win, 38-28.
With Willie Parker’s future in Pittsburgh in doubt, was Sunday night the start of a new era in the Steelers’ backfield? Where Mendenhall goes from here will be dependent upon his play in the coming weeks. Although the future may not be clear for Rashard Mendenhall, on Sunday night, the halfback certainly showed everyone across the league what he is capable of.
Michael C. Smith