OWINGS MILLS — Rashard Mendenhall has bulled past unsuspecting linebackers, steamrolling them with his deceptive power.
Lowering a shoulder and driving ahead with his low center of gravity, Mendenhall has emerged as a legitimate threat in short yardage situations. He has displayed an uncanny ability to elude tacklers with adept moves in the open field, displaying impressive speed.
He outran everyone during an overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons on his 50-yard touchdown run, scampering away from pursuit.
In his third NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back has come a long way since his days as a battered rookie who got his shoulder broken on a devastating hit by Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
“Rashard is the kind of back he was all along,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You saw him in college, and he had the potential to be a premier back. He’s become a premier back.
“He got hurt for one year, I guess, and that probably held him back, but he’s really good. He’s the key to their running game. They have a very physical offensive line, and he just picks his way through that next play.”
Heading into Sunday night’s AFC North battle royale at M&T Bank Stadium, Mendenhall ranks fifth in the AFC and seventh in the NFL with 962 rushing yards. He has scored a career-high nine rushing touchdowns.
In last week’s overtime win over the Buffalo Bills, he carried it a career-high 36 times and gained a season-high 151 yards.
“He’s getting better as a back,” Ravens nose guard Kelly Gregg said. “Some of the runs he was making as a rookie he was looking to get down. Now, he’s a top back. It’s going to be a fun game.”
Mendenhall scored both of the Steelers’ touchdowns during a 17-14 loss at Heinz Field earlier this season, grinding out 79 yards on 25 carries. Although he wasn’t ultra-productive in terms of yards per carry against the Ravens, Mendenhall did command their respect.
In terms of durability, strength and speed, Mendenhall grades out extremely high on NFL scouting reports.
He’s averaging four yards per carry.
And his carries against Buffalo represents the heaviest workload for a Steelers back since Willie Parker four years ago. One year removed from gaining a career-high 1,108 yards, Mendenhall has rushed for 100 yards three times this season.
He has also caught 16 passes for 97 yards.
“He’s definitely a very elusive and explosive back and this productivity shows he’s definitely a good player,” inside linebacker Jameel McClain said. “He’s an overall running back. He can do it all. He can catch out of the backfield. He can break tackles and he can beat you to the corner.”