Monday, October 17, 2011

Mendenhall quiets critics

Monday, October 17, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 16: Rashard Mendenhall(notes) #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks for running room between William Middleton(notes) #29 and Dawan Landry(notes) #26 of the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field on October 16, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 17-13. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Wave after wave, various versions of the same question came for Rashard Mendenhall as he was surrounded by cameras and microphones in the Steelers' locker room Sunday.

Did he hear or read his critics all through the week?

"No, not at all," he replied, expressionless.

What about the calls for Isaac Redman and/or Jonathan Dwyer take his place?

"I don't get into all that. We have a great relationship."

Any additional motivation?

"I prepare the same every week. There was nothing different for me."

Any advice from the coaches about maybe changing his style?

"No. After running the same way for 24 years, I don't think you change your running style in a week. This was just business as usual for us."

It sure was business as usual for Mendenhall — at least the 2010 version — in the Steelers' 17-13 closer-than-necessary edging of Jacksonville at Heinz Field. He ran for 146 yards, including an 8-yard pylon dive for the Steelers' first touchdown and a 68-yard burst through left tackle that set up a field goal. It was the fourth-highest rushing total of his career, and it nearly doubled the 173 he mustered in his first four games.

He was outstanding.

But I'm sorry, I'm not buying that there was no extra motivation. Not with all the noise around town about how the Steelers' 1,273-yard man suddenly was tiptoeing to the line, failing to hit holes and going down far too easily. Nothing underscored that like watching Dwyer break loose for 113 yards and Redman battle for a hard 49 last week, when Mendenhall had a hamstring injury. Same offensive line, different result.

I wrote in this space after that game that, although Mendenhall is the superior talent, Redman's visibly superior determination should have earned him at least the first drive Sunday. Most of the fan base, it seemed, was far harsher on Mendenhall than that.

There's just no way he wasn't moved by it, right?

To be sure, I checked with Dwyer: "Oh, no, I don't think so. To me, Rashard is one of the best backs in the NFL. He just went out and did what he does."

Next was Redman, who sounded unsure about Mendenhall's feelings on the criticism but plenty sure of his own: "It made me really mad, hearing all that about Rashard. All he does is help this team win football games. Things weren't going well for our team, and he was getting the majority of the blame. It wasn't fair. But today, he came out and shut a lot of people up."

In response to the criticism?

"Well, of course it's going to make a difference," Redman said. "When a guy's getting criticized and we run the ball well when he's out, yeah, he's going to feel an urge. He went out there and shut up all his critics."

Inspired anew, I went back to Mendenhall's stall, long since isolated, and offered yet another version of the same question: What was it like seeing Dwyer and Redman succeed the previous week, only to have the narrative turn so sharply against him?

"Yeah, I know, that's part of it," Mendenhall replied. "Look, what my teammates did was no surprise to me. I see them every day. I know they're talented backs. It's unfortunate, though, for as much work as you put in, how people turn that fast."

We sure do.

Mendenhall is the Steelers' featured back, now and for the foreseeable future. He can run inside and out, he can catch passes, and he even rushes for touchdowns, with 16 now over the past two seasons. Not many backs find the end zone anymore. And he's still growing at age 24.

Look, Mendenhall will never be beloved in this town. I get that. Anyone who tweets all the nonsense he did in the offseason is never going to be a sympathetic character. It won't help that he doesn't have the most gregarious personality.

But the man can run.

And, whether he admits it or not, he can generate an extra vapor trail or two when he gets ticked off.

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 16: Blaine Gabbert(notes) #11 of the Jacksonville Jaguars drops back to pass in front of LaMarr Woodley(notes) #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on October 16, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Game balls

Columnist Dejan Kovacevic chooses the game’s top performers:

LaMarr Woodley, Steelers OLB: No one's questioning the $61 Million Man's whereabouts after another big game, with two sacks, a quarterback hurry, a tackle for a loss and eight total tackles.

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers RB: Stuck it to his critics with inspired rushing for 146 yards, reaching 100 just three minutes into the second quarter. Maybe he heard Isaac Redman's footsteps.

Brett Keisel, Steelers DE: The Beard is something to fear again. No. 99 recorded two sacks, a tipped pass and tackle for a loss on a screen pass, and he helped the run defense stuff cutbacks

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