By Teresa Varley
Running back Rashard Mendenhall was faced with a challenge early in the 2009 season and he responded to it just like many hoped he would.
After not playing any offensive snaps against the Bengals in week three because of a disappointing week of practice, Mendenhall stepped up and was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his standout performance against the San Diego Chargers in a 38-28 win at Heinz Field the following week. And he didn't stop there. Mendenhall continued to produce throughout the season, finishing the year with 242 carries for 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns in his first full season in the NFL.
"That's a great milestone for a running back to get that in my first full season in the NFL," said Mendenhall, the team's 2008 first-round draft pick who spent most of last season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. "It feels good. I feel like I have a lot of room to grow and learn and I look forward to doing that in the years to come."
Like any running back Mendenhall would like to get more carries in 2010, but he also understands that there are some major weapons on offense, including wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and that means things are going to be spread around.
"When you are playing with guys like that being able to do the things we did this year, a 4000 yard passer, two 1000 yard receivers and a 1000 yard rusher, we got a lot of things going on offense," said Mendenhall. "All I control is my plays and what I do. So I just try to maximize everything I can."
As they were packing up for the offseason and preparing to get a little bit of R&R, many players were at least pleased that the team came on strong at the end of the season, finishing with three wins after going through a disappointing five-game losing streak.
"We are glad we were able to finish strong and win three straight and be a team on the rise at the end," said Mendenhall. "Unfortunately we weren't able to make the playoffs, but it's a good place to go moving forward. It's very important. Going into the offseason you have a little more confidence. It's a different kind of feeling if we were losing and had to end our season like that."
Looking back at the five-game losing streak there is no doubt that they were in games, with just a play here and there sometimes being the difference maker.
"You look at yourself personally and as a team there were plays out there we left on the field," said nose tackle Chris Hoke. "If we would have made one play here, got a sack here, an interception there, or a touchdown catch here it might have been different. It wasn't one person. It was everybody at different parts of the season. If we would have had one thing here or there, it would have helped. That's the NFL. That is what makes it so exciting.
"It was a disappointing year. We know we have a good football team. It was a tale of winning big games and losing the ones we should have won. I don't know if anybody can put their finger on what happened. It's disappointing. You look at one play here or there and we would still be playing now."