Steelers RB ready to dance on the field

LATROBE, Pa. – Sandy Romah wants to make one thing perfectly clear: There were no “spirit fingers.”

Romah, a lithe, elegant woman who works for Pittsburgh Steelers TV and teaches dance on the side, repeats the denial, her voice hitting an ever-so-slight squeal.

“He didn’t do spirit fingers, no,” she said, referring to running back Rashard Mendenhall(notes), the Steelers’ first-round NFL draft pick in 2008. “I made sure that every bit of choreography was completely appropriate and flattering.”

Photo Mendenhall had 24 rushing yards against the Cardinals last week.
(Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Of course, Mendenhall’s teammates were only too happy to start the rumor about him borrowing a move from comedian Will Ferrell’s famed cheerleader sketch. Mendenhall’s foray into hip-hop dance during an eight-month stretch after he broke his shoulder last season is going to be the stuff of locker-room humor for quite some time.

Even if, as Romah said, Mendenhall “was really good.”

“No, he was great,” she said, as if trying to stave off the torrent of sarcastic humor that’s about to come Mendenhall’s way.

No chance. When coach Mike Tomlin was asked to evaluate Mendenhall’s dancing, his response was typical of what Mendenhall can expect.

“Don’t quit your day job,” Tomlin said, a wry grin forming on his face.

Jokes aside, what the Steelers are more concerned with is Mendenhall becoming the star that the team projects. If not that, they want him to at least press returning starter Willie Parker(notes) to improve upon his injury-riddled and inconsistent 2008.

And if the tandem is unable to vastly improve its production, the punishment may continue to mount on star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) – a man who has won two Super Bowls in five years and has the bruises to show for the hard work. He has been sacked at least 46 times in each of the past three years.

“I love that guy’s toughness,” one NFL general manager said. “But the way [Roethlisberger] plays, he’ll be lucky to play 10 years. … He might be a little bit of a drama queen, but he does get hit and he gets hit hard.”

Tomlin and Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert believe that Roethlisberger’s style won’t really change, even with a better running game … at least not for awhile.

“Ben takes somewhat of a beating because of the way he plays the game,” Tomlin said. “He plays to win and he doesn’t [back off] on certain plays. He’s trying to kill people on every play and he puts himself in harm’s way because of it, but he also creates a bunch of plays in how he plays the game. … I don’t equate what happened with him with what happened with the running game. He got sacked just as much in 2007 when we were third in the league in rushing.”

Still, Colbert believes that Roethlisberger will gradually change his approach.

“Eventually, he won’t stand in and take as many shots as he has, but that’s not going to be for some time if you really watch how he plays,” Colbert said.

Maybe so, but Mendenhall and the running game have to become more significant than last season, when the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl despite averaging a paltry 3.7 yards per rush and 105 yards per game (ranking No. 23 in the league) during the regular season. Between Parker’s injuries, Mendenhall’s broken shoulder (suffered after he made only 19 carries) and fluctuation on the offensive line, the Steelers running game was one of the worst ever for a championship team.

“You never want to see your quarterback get hit, especially when it’s a guy who’s so important to this team like Ben,” Mendenhall said. “Collectively, we can help that. Me, [Parker], Mewelde [Moore], the offensive line.”

To that end, Mendenhall has split a lot of the reps in practice with Parker in training camp. Just as important, Mendenhall didn’t take his injury from last season as an opportunity to simply relax. As soon as he got his arm out of a sling, he hit the dance floor.

It was part fun and part serious. Serious enough that Mendenhall even performed during a recital in June.

“I wanted to do something to keep me moving and something I was interested in, so I thought this would be pretty cool,” he said.

“He was very good,” Romah said. “Dancing seems to come naturally to Rashard. He had rhythm, he picked up the steps pretty quickly and he wanted to be there. He was really passionate about being there. He was really humble and fun, very much into dance and music.”

Romah, who predicts a future on “Dancing With The Stars” for Mendenhall, bought the full Michael Jackson “Beat It” outfit for the compilation of dances that Mendenhall and class members did in front of approximately a thousand people at the Chartiers Valley Intermediate Center in Bridgeville.

“He worked hard, very hard. Sometimes he would have me stay an extra hour going over the steps. You can tell he’s a hard worker because he has that passion in him. He doesn’t want to be good, he wants to be great,” Romah said. “I think it’s natural for these guys to want to be good at this, as athletes and professionals, they want to be good, they want to look good, not be embarrassed. He wanted to learn it and have fun with it and he wanted to master it.”

Now, Mendenhall must do the same in football. Perhaps the dancing will help.

“I never missed a game in high school or college, so for that to happen when I got to the NFL was really frustrating,” Mendenhall said. “I think the dancing can help, like with the flexibility, the ability to move all around, all of those things. The more fluid your body can be, the better your body control is. In breaking tackles, you’re getting hemmed up a lot of different ways, so to be able to sidestep people that much easier really helps.”

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Aug 19, 2009