"I talked to him when I came back, I said, ‘Listen, you're becoming elite,'" Roethlisberger said.
Perhaps as unlikely an occurrence as a 3-1 mark minus Roethlisberger has been Mendenhall's climb to No. 2 in the NFL in rushing with 411 yards in four games.
Projecting his current numbers over the course of a 16-game season, Mendenhall is on pace to carry the ball 356 times (that would be third on the Steelers' all-time single-season list) and amass 1,644 rushing yards (also third).
Of course, he figures to carry it a little less frequently than he has been now that Roethlisberger has returned. But what Mendenhall lacks in carries he might make up for in catches out of the backfield. He has only five of those in four games and that's an aspect of Mendenhall's game Roethlisberger is likely to rely upon more often.
"If you have a running back that's a first and second-down guy and you have to take him out on third down, usually you're taking him out because either he can't catch, he's not a good catcher, or, he can't pass block, he doesn't understand the concept of pass blocking," Roethlisberger said. "You see Rashard staying in there and that speaks volumes about him. He's able to stay in on third down because he can catch the ball and he's able to pick up blocks because he's so stout."
The argument could easily be made that Mendenhall has been the Steelers' MVP over the first four games, or the offensive MVP at the very least. What Roethlisberger has seen on TV is a complete player, the total package.
"There was a play against Baltimore, a guy blitzed and watching from the sideline (angle) I thought it was Isaac Redman (picking up the blitz), because Isaac's a really good blocker, stout, can stonewall anybody," Roethlisberger said. "I was like ‘oh, good pickup Red.' And then they showed it from the end zone and I saw it was Rashard. I was like ‘wow, that's impressive.'
"I think it speaks volumes about him. I think he's taken giant steps so far."
The Steelers came in counting on Mendenhall a great deal this season, and would have even had Roethlisberger not been suspended.
But when you see Mendenhall run over a safety at the goal line one week – as he did Tampa Bay's Sean Jones – and then pull an inside-outside oke-doke on a defensive end on his way to the end zone the next week – as Mendenhall did to Baltimore's Haloti Ngata – it's hard not to share Roethlisberger's enthusiasm regarding Mendenhall's performance and potential.
Mendenhall suddenly has a vast array of ways with which to exploit a defense, although the spin-move remains an often-relied-upon standard.
"He probably spins 30 times a game," Roethlisberger said. "I'm fine with it as long as he doesn't get hurt spinning. He's got really good feet so he's able to do it and he's getting better at securing the ball when he does it."
Roethlisberger's enthusiasm, by the way, wasn't specifically solicited. He was merely asked what had excited and/or inspired him about the Steelers' first four games.
"He's got it all, I'm telling you," Roethlisberger insisted. "He's growing into an elite back. I'm talking he is working his way into the top five, for sure. I don't know if I can sit there and say he's in the top five because there are some guys that are just toting the ball so much and that's all they do. But I'm telling you that right now he has evolved and is evolving into a top-five back."
Mendenhall doesn't sound like a guy they're about to forget just because the quarterback's finally back.