Team Talk Week 8 - Rashard Mendenhall

Rashard Mendenhall is not your ordinary pro athlete. A free thinker, a student of life and passionate about the arts, he’s also a keen traveller - which is just as well considering his Steelers will journey to London in 2013 for the first leg of next year’s International Series double header at Wembley.

Mendenhall has long been the focal point of a Steelers rushing attack that serves as a chain-moving complement to QB Ben Roethlisberger’s gung ho downfield passing. With 3,441 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns in his career, not to mention two Super Bowl appearances, there’s not much the former first round pick out of Illinois hasn’t achieved in his stellar five-year career.

Currently making his way back from an injury to his Achilles tendon, Rashard took time to tell Team Talk exactly how his Steelers are shaking off a so-so start to this campaign, what It means to the team to be visiting Britain in 2013, and why he’d tab old friend and Giants’ punter Steve Weatherford as the kicker in his NFLUK fantasy team.

Rashard, let’s start with you. How are you feeling as you make your way back from last year’s season-ending knee injury?

RM: I’m feeling good. The knee has healed well but it’s a long process and it takes patience, takes work. Now I have this Achilles but I feel great and I’m in good shape, and I’m just working to get back out there and compete.

The Steeler offense is transitioning to a new scheme under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and Ben Roethlisberger has suggested it’s still a work in progress. What’s your take?

RM: It’s coming together as we go along. Everything has to sort of re-gel when you have a change like that and we need to find our identity and balance. But we’re comfortable with it because we’ve been doing it since OTAs and training camp, and we already knew it inside out by the time the games started. It doesn’t feel greatly different to 2011.

You levelled your record with a big road win in week seven, now it’s time for consecutive NFC East games against Washington and the Super Bowl champion Giants. How are you approaching them?

RM: They’re very important games for us. The Cincinnati game was important for us to get back on the winning track, now we need to take that and build on it against the Redskins. We’re not fazed at all by being 3-3. We’re a team that doesn’t blink, and we’re not flinching at adversity.

Let’s talk about the major news that broke last week - the Steelers are coming to Wembley to play the Vikings in 2013. What’s your reaction?

RM: It’s pretty cool. It’s interesting to get away to Europe, and London has so much history. Bringing the NFL to that platform will be cool for everybody. Most guys on the team see it as a unique experience and are looking forward to it. It doesn’t happen too often!

How did you first find out the news?

RM: Actually the team didn’t really tell us, I think I heard it from a friend or a teammate who had seen it in the news. Of course we’re so focused on now, on this season, it’s easy to miss things so far ahead.

What would you name a London franchise if there was such a thing?

RM: You know the first thing that’s coming to me is the team from Family Guy, the London Silly Nannies!

It will of course be a business trip first and foremost, but are there any must-sees on your itinerary?

RM: There’s nothing specific. Obviously there’s Big Ben and Tower Bridge, but the main thing is removing myself from my culture and what I’m used to, and come and just be a part of everything.

Five questions from Twitter followers for you now. Kerry Russell asks: ‘Rashard, how much has the running game changed under Coach Haley?’

RM: The running package is smaller and simpler, but the big thing is having a fullback. We have Will Johnson a young, great player who adds a lot of things we can do. I think every running back wants a fullback because he’ll read the play like you will. A fullback has vision and ability and he can read blocks and innovate.

JournoMike wonders: ‘When do you think you’ll be back to full fitness?’

RM: I think I was pretty much there and close to it already before the Achilles. As far as endurance it’s not a problem, I think it’s just that actual football endurance. I’m approaching 100% but there’s a difference between ‘regular 100%’ and ‘football 100%’ - in football you’re never really 100%. We’re going day-to-day and we’ll see how it goes later in the week.

Eamon Ward writes: ‘Rashard, what’s the Steelers plan with resolving the Steelers’ offensive line concerns?’

RM: I think it’s tough when you can’t have the same five guys together. We’ve had some injuries there and it’s been a revolving door a little bit. But we’ve done it before - we were in the Super Bowl a couple of years ago with injuries up front. So we’re used to dealing with having different guys fill in.

And Adrian Connolly asks: ‘What do you think of the Steelers’ new throwback uniforms? They’re getting panned, but I like them!’

RM: I think they’re pretty cool. They’re throwback for a reason, exact replicas of 1934. So it feels like part of history. With the black and yellow stripes it kind of looks like a bumble bee too.

Andy Murray - no relation, we assume - says: ‘Rashard, when are you going to start putting up serious points for my fantasy team? I need you!’

RM: Hopefully soon! Fantasy stuff is hard to gauge, but hopefully as I continue to work back and get to be that featured ball carrier.

That leads us nicely onto NFLUK fantasy football. In the NFLUK Fantasy League, owners have to pick a quarterback, two runners, two receivers, a tight end, a defense and a kicker. Who would you choose for your team?

RM: I think I’d just pick my friends from around the league and guys I like, but I don’t know if that would be wise for fantasy football! My quarterback would be Ben (Roethlisberger). For running backs I like Matt Forte - especially as I’m from Chicago - and Maurice Jones-Drew. My receivers are Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, and not just because I know them, they’d be my for-real picks. My tight end has to be Heath Miller because he’s always been my favourite player on the Steelers. If not him then maybe Vernon Davis of the 49ers? And for my defense, if not the Steelers, San Francisco. And my kicker? Can I choose a punter instead? I played with the Giants’ Steve Weatherford in college, so I’d just get him to kick the field goals for my team.

And what would you call your team?

RM: Let’s see, not the Silly Nannies. How about the Football Scholars?

Because that kind of describes you too?

RM: Yeah, I just enjoy growing and learning and I’m open to anything and everything. I do a lot of reading - it’s peaceful and quiet - and chilling out and travelling. Especially with football, my job is so fast, so on my own I like to slow down, write poetry, read. It’s how I’ve always been and I played the clarinet from fourth grade to high school too. It’s my get away.

And are you and the Steelers channelling some of that calm as you move into the crucial middle portion of the season?

RM: Yeah, there’s no panic at all here and it’s still early. The losses we’ve had help us in terms of looking ahead and showing up weaknesses that need to be addressed. Personally I keep it simple and day in, day out work on being the best I can. One step at a time - do that and the results will come.

To find out who’s up next in our Team Talk interviews, keep an eye on @NFL_UK and @MikeELawrence on Tuesday afternoons. You can submit questions for our next interviewee on Tuesdays @MikeELawrence.