When Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the regular-season finale at Cleveland, he was perhaps playing as well as he had at any point of the season.
The previous week, Mendenhall had lit up a shaky Rams run defense for 116 yards on 18 carries, with a 52-yard rush and a 35-yard reception as highlights. Not lacking for long speed, Mendenhall has proven that he can be very dangerous if he gets a lane and gets into the secondary.
Now, the 24-year-old Mendenhall faces a period of recuperation and rehabilitation as he works to return for his fifth NFL season. In an interview with PFW Wednesday, Mendenhall's agent, Rick Smith, said that Mendenhall's injury was a "standard" ACL tear, with a recovery timetable of "6-9 months," he said.
Head coach Mike Tomlin expressed hope that Mendenhall's recovery would go quickly and smoothly.
"We are still looking at dates and specifics, but we look forward to getting him healthy, well and fixed, and back in business for us in the 2012 season," Tomlin said on Jan. 3, according to the club.
Mendenhall, whom the Steelers drafted when he was only 20 years old, will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2012 season.
With Mendenhall out, the Steelers will lean heavily on top backup Isaac Redman, a physical, between-the-tackles grinder. A defensive assistant who's seen the 6-foot, 230-pound Redman this year, however, noted that the Bowie State product, while running with power, was a "slithery" back with some quickness, too.
Redman, 27, has 162 regular-season carries in three seasons in Pittsburgh. Mewelde Moore, an eight-year veteran, gives the Steelers a more experienced alternative in the backfield, but he's battling a knee injury. Rookies John Clay and Chad Spann, undrafted free agents like Redman, are the next options on the depth chart. Second-year back Jonathan Dwyer, who showed promise in his lone extended on-field stint this season in place of the injured Mendenhall, is out for the season with a foot injury.
Tomlin expressed confidence in his running backs leading up to the wild-card game vs. Denver.
"Anybody that is a running back on our roster, we are confident that they are capable of playing winning football for us," he said. "We don't do charity. Everyone that sits in that room is capable of helping us win, whether they are active roster or practice-squad guys. We have been consistent in that mentality, and relaying those messages, and it is unchanging."