PITTSBURGH – As the crowd gathered around Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, his teammates shouted words of encouragement to him.
Their message to the running back as he came back from a one-game suspension for conduct deemed detrimental to the team was simple: Welcome back.
“He’s a pretty darn good football player,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “If he can help this team win football games, we’ll take it.”
Mendenhall was suspended for the Steelers’ 27-24 overtime loss to Dallas Sunday for failing to show up for the Dec. 9 game against San Diego after learning he would be inactive for the second straight week.
Mendenhall said his decision not to show up for the game was not made out of frustration.
“I wouldn’t use that word,” Mendenhall said. “There’s a lot of thought in everything I do.”
Head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t make promises to Mendenhall upon his reinstatement, but did leave the door open to the running back being active for the Steelers’ game Sunday at Heinz Field against the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6). It’s a game Pittsburgh (7-7) needs to win to stay in playoff contention.
Mendenhall, the Steelers’ leading rusher the past three seasons, is open to whatever role Tomlin has in mind.
“I’ve felt great this whole time,” said Mendenhall, who suffered a torn knee ligament in Week 17 of last season and was sidelined for four games this year with a sore Achilles’ tendon.
“I’ve worked this whole time, so I’m ready for whatever role they have for me.”
Tomlin benched Mendenhall in favor of Jonathan Dwyer following the Steelers’ 20-14 loss at Cleveland. Mendenhall lost two fumbles on just four carries in that game. But Dwyer and Isaac Redman also fumbled – Pittsburgh lost five fumbles in the game – and the running game has struggled since.
Dwyer has gained only 103 yards on 33 carries since being named the starter.
“I think it’s just the minor details, just getting the plays that we know we’re good at and sticking with them,” said Dwyer, who leads the Steelers with 532 yards on 131 attempts but hasn’t gotten more than nine attempts in each of the past two games, both losses.
“Once we do that, we need to keep implementing it throughout the game.”
With both Mendenhall and Redman sitting out the Oct. 21 meeting with Cincinnati – a 24-17 Pittsburgh victory – Dwyer gained a career-high 122 yards on 17 carries.
The Steelers are hoping for a similar effort this week in order to take pressure off of Roethlisberger and the passing attack as well as the defense.
“We were successful in running the ball against these guys the last time,” said Tomlin. “We don’t anticipate that it will be easy just because of our past experience. But we are comfortable with the formulation of a plan, and we look forward to having those guys being a big part of what it is we do.”
Roethlisberger said he apologized to offensive coordinator Todd Haley for statements he made following the Dallas game. Roethlisberger questioned some of Haley’s play calling.
“(I was) just apologizing for the storm that it created and caused,” said Roethlisberger, who said he also apologized to Tomlin and team president Art Rooney II. “We do have a lot of talks behind closed doors – about things, about plays, play calling. ... We have talks about everything. Coach Tomlin and I meet every Monday to talk about the game and what goes on. Just the frustration after a loss, and especially feeling like it was my fault, things blew up.”
Odds and end zones
Cornerback Cortez Allen, who sat out Sunday with a groin injury, participated in practice Wednesday. … Cornerback Keenan Lewis (hip), offensive tackle Mike Adams (ankle) and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (ribs) were limited in practice. … Defensive end Cameron Heyward (not injury related), safety Troy Polamalu (coach’s decision), cornerback Ike Taylor (ankle) and defensive end Al Woods (illness) did not practice.