Now in his second full season as the featured tailback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rashard Mendenhall has enjoyed considerable success in the NFL -- just not against the Ravens, who welcome Mendenhall and the Steelers to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday night.
And that's a mystery even to some Ravens defensive players.
"We have done well against him, but historically, he's a style of back that we don't do well against," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "He's extremely patient, he hits the perimeter really fast, and usually against real patient guys like him, we struggle because we attack and he's waiting and pops into another hole. I don't know what the key is. You've just got to keep him contained because he can bust it out quick."
In four career meetings against the Ravens, Mendenhall has never reached the 100-yard mark, and he failed to gain 40 rushing yards in two of those games.
His debut against the Ravens on Sept. 29, 2008, ended early when a collision with inside linebacker Ray Lewis resulted in Mendenhall's sitting out the rest of the season with a fractured right shoulder.
This season, Mendenhall has perhaps been the engine of the Steelers' offense. While the team survived with quarterback Charlie Batch playing the first four games of the season as Ben Roethlisberger served a four-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy, Mendenhall has rushed for 962 yards and a career-best nine touchdowns, ranking seventh and tied for third in the NFL, respectively.
He ran for a season-high 151 yards and scored once in Pittsburgh's 19-16 overtime win against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, and he posted two rushing touchdowns in his first meeting with the Ravens on Oct. 3.
"Rashard is the kind of back he was all along," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier in the week. "You saw him in college, and he had the potential to be a premier back. He's become a premier back. He got hurt for one year, I guess, and that probably held him back. But he's really good. He's the key to their running game. They have a very physical offensive line, and he just picks his way through that next play."
Mendenhall, 5 feet 10, 225 pounds, is a power back who is difficult to bring down because of his low center of gravity. After sharing carries with Willie Parker in 2008, Mendenhall took over in 2009, rushing for 1,108 yards.
But he's also blessed with speed, an asset that sometimes catches opponents off-guard.
"We didn't know he had that much speed until we found out when he bounced outside in the first game," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "He's really a good running back."
Nose tackle Kelly Gregg said Mendenhall reminds him of the Cincinnati Bengals' Cedric Benson in terms of his patience and his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. (Mendenhall has caught 16 passes for 98 yards this season.)
Gregg said the worst thing a defense can do is surrender big gains to Mendenhall early in a game.
"You can't let him get started," Gregg said. "That's one thing that we try to do. Don't let him get off to where he starts getting confidence. We just try to contain and keep on top of him for the whole game."
Because of Roethlisberger's prowess with throwing the football and escaping sacks, defenses tend to concentrate on containing the quarterback. Ravens strong safety Dawan Landry said it will be just as crucial to limit Mendenhall, who has three 100-yard games this season.
"He's playing at a high level right now," said Landry, who is questionable for the game because of a concussion suffered in the Ravens' 17-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. "He's the guy who makes that offense go. He's like what Ray Rice or Willis [McGahee] is to our offense right now."
Mendenhall's significance to Pittsburgh has grabbed the Ravens' attention.
"He's one of the backs in the league that nobody really knows about," Johnson said. "The last couple of years, they've kind of been a passing team, but they've been featuring him a lot lately. He's a back that doesn't get a whole lot of respect, but it is deserved."
Baltimore Sun reporter Ken Murray contributed to this article.