By Mike Prisuta
DENVER _ Rashard Mendenhall has done his best to maintain perspective during a career that so far has included an injury-aborted rookie season and then a second season where his opportunities early in it seemed to be awfully limited for a recent No. 1 pick in the draft.
He'll endeavor to accept his second 100-yard game of 2009, a 155-yard outburst in Monday night's 28-10 win in Denver, with more of the same.
"Early in the season, when I was playing a couple of plays, I'd watch the film and try to learn and grow and build off that," Mendenhall said. "Same thing with this, I'm going to watch, learn and build.
"I just try to keep everything as normal as possible."
Mendenhall's opportunities to contribute were limited to special teams-only appearances on Sept. 27 at Cincinnati. That was the game where Mike Tomlin decided not to give Mendenhall the ball at all against the Bengals after a week of practice during which the second year pro's attention to detail had been deemed lacking by the Steelers' head coach.
Mendenhall responded with 165 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns on 29 carries on Oct. 4 against San Diego, the game immediately following the one against the Bengals.
Since then, he has gained more of the coaches' confidence, and his role, as well as the number of times he carries the ball in games, has increased incrementally. All of that brought him to Denver as the starting tailback, and Mendenhall delivered the second 100-yard game of his emerging NFL career. And he averaged 7.0 yards per carry during his 100-yard effort against the Broncos' No. 1-ranked defense.
For the season Mendenhall has 573 yards on 100 attempts and four rushing touchdowns, an indication that he's finding his way now that he's enjoying an extended opportunity to play.
"You just gain more experience and kind of get used to the game, accustomed to the game," Mendenhall said. "As this thing goes on, more and more I'm becoming me and getting comfortable in who I am as a runner."
Mendenhall was impressive for what he didn't do against the Broncos as well as for his numbers.
After losing a fumble on Oct. 18 against Cleveland and again on Oct. 25 against Minnesota, he protected the ball in Denver.
"Me, personally, that doesn't faze me," Mendenhall said. "I don't blink. I'm confident in myself. I know what my issues are and what they aren't. On the outside it starts to become talk but I don't trip about that. I just continue to work every week.
"Between (running backs coach) Kirby (Wilson), Coach Tomlin, BA (offensive coordinator Bruce Arians), they have a lot of confidence in me and they know my ball-security is good. At times it gets away from my body but overall they have confidence in me and faith in me."
Mendenhall's teammates have begun to notice a different player, even as Mendenhall maintains not much has changed.
"I think Rashard's doing a better job of seeing the holes," offensive tackle Max Starks said. "He finally was reading some of their tendencies. Rashard saw some good things, cut back and made some good plays."
Mendenhall has started the last five games, in part because of an injury suffered by running back Willie Parker and of late because Mendenhall has earned the ball.
"The sky's the limit for him," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "As long as he doesn't get satisfied with where he is I think he'll do just fine."
Mike Prisuta is the sports director for WDVE-FM, the flagship station on the Steelers Radio Network.