Mendenhall ripped, ready to lead backfield

So, the Steelers really are intent on running the ball better this season. Well, the backs showed at minicamp last weekend that they're ready to rumble.

PITTSBURGH – With former starter Willie Parker off to the NFC, Rashard Mendenhall didn't really need to show all that much at the Steelers' minicamp this past weekend.

But he did.

Mendenhall – just in case anyone forgot how he'd wrested the third-down job from Mewelde Moore late last season – showed off great hands as a receiver. And then he showed off his burst. But, of course, we all knew about that. It's why he was a first-round pick in 2008.

However, there's a burst, and then there's running away from Ike Taylor.

Taylor is the ultra-fast Steelers cornerback who's drawing raves this offseason for his speed work the past few months with Tom Shaw. But Mendenhall ran away from Taylor after catching a pass on the sideline.

"I do feel quick," said Mendenhall. "I feel pretty good, in fact."

Everyone feels good in the locker room after a practice, but once Mendenhall took off his shirt his satisfaction became evident: His physique is ripped like never before.

Mendenhall's down to 217 pounds, about five pounds lighter than his playing weight last season. He says that's about as light as he wants to be right now.

"Right now's not the time to be heavy," he said. "At training camp I'll be back up to whatever my body feels the need to be at, through eating and training. But I do feel quick. I feel I'm able to challenge myself, running-wise."

Mendenhall wasn't the only "ripped" running back at minicamp. Moore, of course, is a well-conditioned veteran who's built like the classic halfback. And the other veteran halfback, Isaac Redman, has improved his conditioning after Coach Mike Tomlin's criticisms last season.

Redman, in fact, made the only significant offensive play in any of the three 2-minute drill sets Saturday morning. The second-year back took a short pass from Charlie Batch and ran 30, 35 yards up the middle, looking like the proverbial heat-seeking missile.

Needless to say, the veterans are prepared to fend off any potential challenge from rookie Jonathan Dwyer, who was at one time considered a first-rounder in media circles. But after showing up with a paunch at the combine, Dwyer fell to the Steelers late in the sixth round.

Dwyer looks like a steal now, though. Not only did he take a pitch, turn the corner, and flash surprising speed down the right sideline, he ran an inside zone play by – and pardon the scouting cliché – sticking his foot in the ground and cutting up the field for a big gain. He was stopped with a two-hand tab by a safety who obviously would've had a more difficult time stopping the big back on game day.

After practice, reporters gathered around Dwyer in the locker room. Someone asked the fit-and-trim rookie what happened to his paunch.

"Yeah, I'm faster, lighter and quicker," he said with a smile. "I wanted to show I don't have a weight problem. People thought I had a weight problem; never did, never have. I was just bigger because I wanted to survive in the triple option."

In the triple option, Dwyer was merely a fullback running dive plays. Before this past weekend, the last time he'd played tailback was his freshman year at Georgia Tech.

"It felt good," he said. "I can see what's going on. Back there you have the ability of seeing what the defense is doing. And I always knew I had speed. I just haven't had the opportunity to show it."

It appears Dwyer will get that opportunity in Pittsburgh. But, of course, the Steelers' backfield isn't going to be an easy one to crack any time soon. Led by "old man" Mendenhall, the competition has suddenly become fierce.

"I am starting to feel like the old man," the soon-to-be 23-year-old Mendenhall said with a laugh.

"It did hit me a bit, the way the young guys came in and were watching me and following me. But the league, the way it is, you've got to be ready for anything that's thrown at you. I mean, I did it before in high school and college. That's the way it works."

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