PITTSBURGH – Rashard Mendenhall's surgically repaired right knee feels so good, the Steelers running back isn't even wearing so much as an ace bandage over it when he practices.
"I put a sleeve on for a day and didn't like it," Mendenhall said. "I feel better without anything on it."
The 25-year-old hardly looked like he needed one on Wednesday. Asked by coach Mike Tomlin to knock Mendenhall around a little bit, Pittsburgh's defense obliged by getting a couple of shots in during their one padded workout of the week.
How it'd feel?
"It was cool," Mendenhall said. "I was all good."
And — the Steelers hope — their running game will be too.
Though it's still uncertain whether Mendenhall will be ready to play on Sunday when the Steelers (1-1) travel to Oakland (0-2), there's little doubt he's inching closer to a return barely nine months removed from surgery to repair the ACL he tore in last year's regular season finale against Cleveland.
"He looked fast," offensive guard Willie Colon said. "Everything I saw was a good sign."
Pittsburgh could certainly use a healthy Mendenhall to help take some of the pressure off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers rank 30th in the NFL in rushing with just 141 yards through the season's first two weeks and are averaging an anemic 2.6 yards per carry. Nearly 20 percent of their 54 running plays have gone for negative yardage, though Roethlisberger and one of the league's top receiving corps has helped Pittsburgh control the ball for more than 35 minutes a game behind some third-down heroics.
Roethlisberger, however, knows his team won't continue to convert 56 percent (19 of 34) of its third downs if something doesn't start happening on the ground.
"We don't want to do that all year," Roethlisberger said. "I can tell you that much."
Mendehall's presence means they might not have to.
He narrowly missed his third straight 1,000-yard season last fall due in part to a slightly decreased workload and an awkward step against Cleveland on New Year's Day when he tried to plant while trying to cut back near the sideline only to have his knee buckle.
Mendenhall didn't even travel to Denver for the playoff game, where replacement Isaac Redman rushed for a respectable 121 yards in a 29-23 overtime loss to the Broncos. Though he underwent surgery shortly after getting hurt, Mendenhall has been careful not to put a definite timetable on his rehab. Still, he's grown increasingly more active in practice over the last two weeks.
Asked if he believes he can play on Sunday against the Raiders, Mendenhall shrugged his shoulders and said "possibly," while remaining vague about what exactly it will take for him to get cleared.
"When there's a green light," Mendenhall said, "that's what I'm preparing for."
Having Mendenhall's familiar No. 34 in the backfield would certainly be a welcome sight for the Steelers. Redman has done little through two games. A quarter of his 23 carries have ended with Redman getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Jonathan Dwyer has been more consistent — rushing for 71 yards on 21 carries — but is dealing with a turf toe that relegated him to watching practice in sweats on Wednesday.
New Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley promised to develop a physical presence in the running game that he used so successfully during his two-plus year tenure as coach in Kansas City. It hasn't quite happened yet and Tomlin acknowledged it's an area that needs some work.
"We have got a desire to have balance, to be able to attack people in ways that we desire," Tomlin said. "Over time we better be continually moving toward that. Obviously there's been somewhat of an imbalance to this point, but that's just eight quarters of football."
At times, the Steelers appear to be experimenting with schemes. They pitched wide to the lumbering Redman on the second play of the game last Sunday against the New York Jets only to see him get slammed for a seven-yard loss. On third-and-9 on the same possession, they converted by sending wide receiver Antonio Brown on an end around.
Mendenhall described the mixed results on the ground the result of growing pains. Pittsburgh ran the ball on 17 of their 27 first-down plays against New York in an attempt to set a tone, though center Maurkice Pouncey doesn't think predictability is a problem.
"Whatever coach calls we've got to go out and execute," he said. "It doesn't matter if he calls a triple reverse, we've got to go out and block it."
Besides, the season is still young and Mendenhall believes the offense is still searching for its identity.
"I think we're still getting in the groove of things with Haley," he said. "We're still shaping it."
NOTES: In addition to Dwyer, linebacker James Harrison (knee), safety Troy Polamalu (calf), right tackle Marcus Gilbert (groin), tight end Heath Miller (abdomen) and wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders (knee) and Mike Wallace (groin) did not practice ... Tackle Mike Adams (back) and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (knee) were limited.
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