Cutting with authority and showcasing the explosiveness that made him a vital part of Pittsburgh's offense, Mendenhall rolled up 101 total yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh's 16-14 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday.
"Our savior is back," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger joked. "We've been teasing him all week. It was great to see him out there, and he did a great job."
Playing for the first time since tearing the ACL in his right knee on New Year's Day, Mendenhall revived Pittsburgh's beleaguered running game to take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger. The Steelers (2-2) came in 31st in the league in rushing yards per game and dead last in yards per carry without him.
Mendenhall took care of that, averaging a robust 5.8 yards on 14 carries, not including a 29-yard run wiped out by one of Pittsburgh's nine penalties.
"When I stepped out there I knew that I would be comfortable and just wanted to go out there and play the best that I could, and I was able to do that," Mendenhall said.
He was just as effective out of the backfield, catching two passes for 20 yards, including a 15-yard screen pass during Pittsburgh's final drive that ended with Shaun Suisham's 34-yard field goal as time expired.
"I thought he not only ran well and caught the ball, but he was a source of energy for the unit," said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin. "That's what great players do. They inspire those around them. I thought he did that for the group."
Philadelphia (3-2) appeared on the verge of its third one-point win on the season when Michael Vick found Brent Celek for a 2-yard score with 6:33 remaining, but the Eagles couldn't slow down the Steelers during a methodical final drive in which Roethlisberger converted a pair of critical third downs.
"I think they just made one more play than we did, and it happens," said Philadelphia safety Kurt Coleman.
It's something the Eagles had done with regularity during September, when they won three games by a total of four points.
The Eagles trailed the whole way but put together a grinding 17-play, 79-yard drive at the start of the final quarter, converting a pair of risky fourth downs, including one deep inside their own territory. LeSean McCoy turned both into first downs, twisting for the necessary yardage on fourth-and-inches at the Philadelphia 30, then bulling for two yards on fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 47.
"I don't know how I can say this humble ... we felt like we could drive on them," McCoy said.
Scoring, however, proved to be another matter.
"You're going to need to score more points, going to need to help our defense out a lot more," Vick said. "And we tried to the best we can. Pittsburgh's a good football team; their record might not have shown it."
The Steelers came in smarting following a 34-31 loss in Oakland two weeks ago before heading into a well-timed bye that allowed the defense to get healthy. Pittsburgh hoped the return of linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu from injury would spark a defense that looked a step slow in the second half of losses to the Raiders and Broncos.
The reunion of the two stars didn't last long.
Polamalu left in the first quarter after re-aggravating a strained right calf and the Steelers lost outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley with a strained hamstring shortly thereafter.
Still, the Steelers prevented the Eagles from making big plays. Philadelphia's longest gain was all of 24 yards and Pittsburgh forced Vick to fumble three times — including one into the end zone that Steelers linebacker Larry Foote pounced on — and didn't let him get anything going with his legs.
"Our defense stood up today," said Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons. "We really needed this win. A good team is always defined by what they do after losses."
Pittsburgh took a 10-0 halftime lead behind a lateral from Roethlisberger to Mendenhall that the running back turned into a 13-yard touchdown. The Steelers later added 20-yard field goal by Suisham, though they missed a chance to go up two touchdowns when Jerricho Cotchery tripped going into the end zone just before Suisham's kick.
Philadelphia drew within 10-7 on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Vick to McCoy, setting up a dramatic fourth quarter in which the Steelers turned the tables on the Eagles.
"Things happen," Vick said. "I wish I could take the fumble back on the goal line but you can't. Ultimately I think we put ourselves into a position to win this game and we didn't win."