Saturday, January 08, 2011
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Coach Mike Tomlin once said he would run Willie Parker until the wheels came off, and, toward the end of the 2007 season, they finally did.

Parker was never the same after be broke his right fibula in a Week 15 game in St. Louis, an injury that culminated a three-year period in which he carried 913 times -- an average of 314 attempts per season.

The Steelers are hoping the same thing does not happen to Rashard Mendenhall, who has posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and became the first running back since Franco Harris in 1976 to lead the team in scoring.

In his first two seasons as a starter, Mendenhall, a No. 1 draft choice in 2008, already is being used at a more frequent pace than Parker.

Mendenhall had 324 carries this season, second only to Houston's Arian Foster (327), who led the National Football League with 1,616 yards rushing. That gives him 568 carries in his first 29 professional starts.

After Parker became the starter at the beginning of the 2005 season, he had 542 carries in his first 29 starts. While each back has the same amount of runs of 20 yards or longer in that time (20), Mendenhall (20) has more touchdowns than Parker (11).

His 13 touchdowns this season were one shy of the franchise record (14), set by Harris in 1976. Mendenhall was unaware he was that close to the Hall of Fame running back.

"That's pretty cool, but I don't really get into stuff like that," Mendenhall said. "I just try to improve and use every game to do that."

Mendenhall finished eighth in the NFL with 1,273 yards rushing, but his average carry of 3.9 yards was third lowest among the 17 backs with more than 1,000 yards. Conversely, he had 11 runs of 20 yards or longer, fifth most in the NFL -- an indication of the inconsistency from him and the running game.

In the season finale in Cleveland, against a Browns defense that had allowed an average of 118 yards per game to the previous three backs, he had only 36 yards on 14 carries and did not have a run longer than 7 yards.

Mendenhall is one of five offensive starters -- wide receiver Mike Wallace, center Maurkice Pouncey, left tackle Jonathan Scott and right guard Ramon Foster are the others -- who will be making their first playoff appearance when the Steelers play an AFC divisional-round game Jan. 15 at Heinz Field.

"We're doing pretty good," Pouncey said.

"Everything can always improve, of course. We want to be No. 1 in rushing, but we're not. We're still winning and we like the things we're doing and we want to keep pushing forward at it."

It won't be from a lack of trying. For a team built around Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game, Mendenhall's 324 carries this season were the fifth most in team history.

"I think we can improve and be more productive," Mendenhall said.

As long as the wheels don't come off.

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