Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall has rushed for 962 yards this season.The Steelers have used five combinations of offensive lineman this season, but those changes haven't affected the running of Rashard Mendenhall, who needs 38 rushing yards to reach 1,000 yards for the second year in a row.
"It's having a chance and opportunity," he said. "When you're having success in the run, it means the offensive line is controlling the line of scrimmage."
But Mendenhall has produced behind a line featuring eight different starters and only two players, center Maurkice Pouncey and right tackle Flozell Adams, who started every game in the same position.
"I'm confident in our guys, whoever we have in there as a team," Mendenhall said. "[Offensive line coach] Sean Kugler, he does a really good job of kind of making the run game clear for those guys. They have a great understanding when they're in there."
The linemen say they want to get Mendenhall into the secondary so he can compete one-on-one with the linebackers and defensive backs.
"Once he gets into the edge and gets into the second level he really has good breakaway speed when he gets up to those guys," guard Ramon Foster said. "He has some moves, whether it's a spin move, whether he's cutting left or right. He makes a lot of plays for himself."
Mendenhall carried the ball 242 times last season for 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns. He's currently seventh in the NFL in rushing yards and tied for third in rushing touchdowns with nine. He has done all this on 238 carries, four shy of last season with five games remaining.
"Just trying to keep people off of him, coming off the ball," guard Chris Kemoeatu said of protecting Mendenhall as his carries increase. "Not letting the big guys hit him."
Mendenhall said he didn't change anything physically during his offseason preparation. Instead, a season of experience helped him see things he previously could not and adjust accordingly.
"You see a hole and you run to it, but you know how to set things up, and you know how to read defenses," Mendenhall said. "We've played teams before so you understand what they're trying to do."
His running has helped in big games.
In the first game of the season, Mendenhall's 50-yard touchdown run in overtime gave the Steelers the victory against the Atlanta Falcons. In a home loss to the Baltimore Ravens, he ran for the Steelers' only two touchdowns and helped them to a lead they held until the final minute of the fourth quarter. Against the Cincinnati Bengals, when the Steelers shuffled linemen because of injuries, he had 22 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown. Last week, in an overtime win against the Buffalo Bills, Mendenhall had a career-high 36 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown, and he has rushed for a touchdown in four of the past five games.
"If he's hitting the hole he knows what he's got before he's even doing it," Foster said. "He's putting himself up there with the elite."
He also helped ease the challenges facing the offense when Ben Roethlisberger missed the first four games because of a suspension. In those four games, he averaged 102.8 yards rushing per game, 4.6 yards per carry, and scored four touchdowns. Since Roethlisberger's return and the development of receiver Mike Wallace as a deep threat, Mendenhall said the offensive variety has helped him.
"When the passing game is on, they're not really worried about the run," he said. "It gives you a chance to have the most balance you can."
Facing the Baltimore Ravens' 11th-ranked run defense, which has allowed 101.7 yards per game this season, will test Mendenhall's readiness. Kemoeatu said he's ready.
"He's definitely a vet now," Kemoeatu said. "Coming in as a rookie, they don't know what to expect. You kind of know how to do it instead of just knowing what you're doing."
NOTES: Roethlisberger practiced in a limited fashion Friday, wearing a special shoe on his injured right foot. The foot was broken previously and Roethlisberger re-injured it against Buffalo, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Friday. He walked gingerly on the foot in the locker room after practice. The Steelers did not make Roethlisberger available to the media. ... Safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles), defensive end Brett Keisel (calf), cornerback Bryant McFadden (hamstring) and defensive end Nick Eason (knee) all went through a full practiced Friday. Tight end Matt Spaeth (concussion) did not practice.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1158.