By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Rashard Mendenhall is 24th in the NFL with 574 rushing yards (3.8 per carry) and six touchdowns through 11 games, and the Pittsburgh Steelers — almost always ranked among the league-leaders in team rushing — are 10th in total offense (374.5 yards per game) with the running game settling in at No. 18 with 109.6 average yards per game.
This should surprise no one, as the Steelers have maintained about a 60-40 edge with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the passing attack much more prevalent to the offense’s success. A return to the ground is unlikely and probably ill-advised considering Roethlisberger prowess and the incredibly young and talented receiving corps, but Mendenhall knows that as well.
“The focus has become passing, so we don’t put too much into the running game,” Mendenhall said. “We really don’t make that decision or call (those plays), so I just try to execute every time I get a chance. Everybody would like to get more carries, but that’s just not the case.
“(And) everybody who’s out there is part of the offense, no matter what your role is. If that’s picking up blitzes, catching the ball, running fakes or anything. So, as long as you’re out there, you’re part of the offense. But that’s just how it is for everybody on this football team.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was just thankful to be playing in an offense that’s discussed positively this season.
“The running backs probably would love to run the ball 60 times a game, but they understand that we have a lot of weapons,” Roethlisberger said. “And I think the more that we can throw the ball, it can open up the running game. And when we can run the ball, it opens up the passing game.
“So, I think we’ve got a lot of unselfish guys in this room that just want to win football games. … I’ll spread it around as much as I can, but I tell those guys that it’s about winning. It’s not about making receivers happy by catching balls. Right now, it’s about winning football games, and whether or not you’re catching balls if we’re winning games (then) that’s all that should matter.”
Mendenhall was asked if the offensive line’s issues — various injuries, attrition and inconsistent play — were a factor with the running game’s success this season, and he predictably downplayed its effect.
“We have capable guys up front, and they’ve all played lots of ball,” Mendenhall said. “So, we definitely have confidence in them. I don’t think the changes to our offensive line have affected the running game at all. All those guys have played well, and they’re all experienced.”
After missing three straight games (and a bye week) with a hamstring injury, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley took a significant step toward returning to the starting lineup during Wednesday’s practice.
“Yeah, I was out there practicing again today, and it felt pretty good on it,” Woodley said. “So, we’ll wait to see throughout the week. It’s probably the most I’ve done, but it felt good today. So, we’ll have to see (Thursday). It’s the best I’ve felt so far, and it’s getting better. So, I’m day-to-day every day.
“I don’t know what the percentage is, but I feel better (Wednesday) than I felt (Tuesday). So, I’m improving every day, but hopefully I’ll keep feeling better all week. (But) we’ll see about that (playing status) at the end of the week. When we come close to Sunday, we’ll see. I come in every morning and do things to strengthen it up, and it’s getting better every day. So, I’m day-to-day.”
Woodley was a full-time participant in practice for the first time since the injury against the New England Patriots Oct. 30 at Heinz Field. He was listed as limited the previous four weeks, but barely walked onto the field the first three weeks before actually having limited action going into the Kansas City game.
Emmanuel Sanders played for the first time in three weeks against the Chiefs and had a modest two catches for 25 yards. But he also replaced Antonio Brown on kickoff returns and expected to do that again this week.
“I’m definitely getting better by the day, and my knee is getting better and better every day,” Saunders said. “So, I was very excited just to play in this past game, and I’m looking forward to get back out there with these guys and having fun. But we have a lot of work to do this week to prepare.
“So, I’m looking forward to having a good week of practice and really turning it up a notch in the next game. I didn’t do all that good on kickoffs, either, but I get another chance this week. I’ll be returning kicks again against Cincinnati, and I can’t wait. I’m really looking forward to breaking one.”
While Roethlisberger’s comments leaned toward his culpability in a couple misconnections with Wallace, the third-year wideout took full responsibility for “two drops” that he said would most assuredly have been touchdowns. One was a long bomb in the first half when he got behind the secondary, but couldn’t secure a fingertip grab. The other was a drop in the end zone.
“We didn’t make some key catches,” Wallace said. “I definitely missed two myself, two that should have been touchdowns, and if I would have made them we wouldn’t even be talking about this. Ben made some good throws, but I just dropped two passes.
“The long one, it definitely would have been a touchdown. The guy made a good play, but I was right there and usually make that play. The other one was in the end zone, and I don’t know what happened there. I just need to make those catches when Ben throws the ball my way.”
Wallace still leads the Steelers and is among the NFL leaders with 55 catches for 939 yards (17.1 average) and six touchdowns.
Along with Woodley, inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (calf) went through a full practice Wednesday. Both are expected to play against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday. Wideout Arnaz Battle (hamstring) and linebacker Larry Foote (hamstring) were limited participants, while safety Troy Polamalu (concussion, center Maurkice Pouncey (illness) and linebacker Chris Carter (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday.
The Bengals listed tight end Donald Lee (foot) and defensive tackle Pat Sims (ankle) as limited, while running back Cedric Benson (foot), cornerback Nate Clements (day off), safety Chris Crocker (biceps), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (hamstring), cornerback Brandon Ghee (groin), linebacker Dontay Moch (day off), defensive tackle Domata Peko (foot) and wideout Jerome Simpson (knee) did not participate in Wednesday’s practice.