Mendenhall ready to run, and Steelers' plan it to let him

PITTSBURGH -- For months, the Pittsburgh Steelers have emphasized upgrading their running game. Rashard Mendenhall is determined to prove all this buildup is a lot more than idle talk.

With the Steelers starting the inexperienced Dennis Dixon at quarterback Sunday against Atlanta, Mendenhall knows that getting the running game going is a necessity to balancing an offense that simply can't be as pass-heavy as it is with Ben Roethlisberger under center.

There were a few flirtations a season ago with the Steelers' running game of the past, as Mendenhall ran for 165 yards against San Diego and 155 against Denver. But it was their passing game and one of the NFL's best defenses that were largely responsible for the Steelers' 24 victories the last two seasons.

That's a break from the past and a trend the Steelers almost certainly can't extend into this season -- not with Roethlisberger suspended for four games and Dixon likely to be his replacement for most or all of that stretch.

"When you're running the ball, you give your defense a break, and you move the chains and control the game," Mendenhall said Wednesday. "It's important."

The last couple of seasons, it seemingly hasn't been all that vital to the Steelers.

Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, the Steelers have outrushed every other NFL team by about 5,000 yards. Franco Harris (eight 1,000-yard seasons) and Jerome Bettis (six 1,000-yard seasons) were greatly responsible for that. And as Bettis' career wound down, Willie Parker ran for 4,012 yards from 2005 to 2007, an average of 1,337 per season.

The last two seasons, the Steelers' rushing leaders combined for 1,899 yards: Parker ran for a team-high 791 yards during the Super Bowl-winning season in 2008, and Mendenhall ran for 1,108 yards last season. With a lesser emphasis on the running game, Roethlisberger passed for a career-high 4,328 yards in 2009.

Being so one-dimensional isn't the Steelers' way, and team president Art Rooney II stressed shortly after their 9-7 season ended in January that the running game must be more efficient.

To help accomplish that, the Steelers drafted center Maurkice Pouncey in the first round. They spent more offseason and training camp time working on short-yardage and goal-line running situations, major deficiencies last season. They also drew up a twin-back set in which Mendenhall and another running back, usually second-year player Isaac Redman, are in the backfield together, but not in the classic tailback-fullback formation.

"It gives the defense a different look, something to be aware of, and keeps them off-balance," Mendenhall said. "We can do more things out of that with Isaac since he's run-capable. And we can do anything we do with our normal package."

Mendenhall also prepared during the offseason to get a lot more carries than the 242 he had last season; Parker had nearly 100 more carries than that in 2006. Mendenhall, a former University of Illinois star, is expected get more carries by staying on the field on third down, something he almost never did last season.

"I'm ready -- that's what we've prepared for throughout the course of training camp and preseason, and that's what I'm looking at," he said. "I'm just ready to do what I'm called to do on Sunday."

Coach Mike Tomlin suggests Mendenhall's role would have expanded even if Roethlisberger played the whole season.

"He's an emerging player," Tomlin said. "He's becoming a veteran player. We're going to call on him. I think that's just the natural maturation process with any player, regardless of circumstances or the quarterback situation. Those are the things we'd be asking of Rashard because it's all just part of where he is."

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians also believes the Steelers can run the ball better without drastically reshaping the offense or asking Roethlisberger to throw a lot fewer times once he returns.

"We want to improve the running game, but we damn sure don't want to step back in the passing game," Arians said.

Meanwhile, quarterback Byron Leftwich (sprained left knee ligament) is riding a stationary bicycle and doing other exercises, but he is not sure when he can play. He lost his chance to start the opener when he was hurt in the final preseason game.

"I'm not going to go out there unless I'm healthy enough to play," he said. "Hopefully, I can speed this process up."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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