TEMPE, Ariz. -- When it was learned Andre Ellington would not be available for the Arizona Cardinals last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, some wondered if the team would be able to continue to have success on the ground.
After all, the rookie was the team's leading rusher and most dynamic threat on the ground, and not having him available would leave the bulk of the carries for veteran Rashard Mendenhall.
Signed to a one-year contract as a free agent, the former Pittsburgh Steeler had struggled to make a noticeable impact this season, though he had one of his more productive games the week before when he gained 54 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries while adding one reception for 24 yards against the Indianapolis Colts.
Mendenhall was handed the ball 18 times against the Eagles, and he gained a healthy 76 yards on those carries. In fact, if it was up to Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, the veteran would have had more carries than that.
"Yeah, I was really pleased with the way he ran the football two weeks in a row," Arians said. "We got behind and couldn't stay with it."
Mendenhall has averaged more than four yards per carry just four times this season, though two of those instances have occurred in the last two games. Is he finally healthy after battling knee and toe injuries during the season? Is the offensive line opening more holes for him to run through? Is an improved passing game forcing defenses to focus more on the receivers and less on the running backs?
Most likely, all of the above.
"I think we're getting better as an offense and in the run game, and there's more opportunity," Mendenhall said. "And I've been able to capitalize on that."
On the season, Mendenhall now has 467 yards and five touchdowns on 148 carries. His most recent effort pushed him back ahead of Ellington for most rushing yards on the team, and he trails only Larry Fitzgerald for touchdowns scored.
If the last few games are any indication, Mendenhall may be able to salvage his first season in the desert. And if he keeps playing well, Arizona's offense will be better for it. After all, this is a guy who not long ago was considered to be one of the better young running backs in the league after rushing for 3,309 yards and 29 touchdowns from 2009-2011 with the Steelers.
"He's back to what I remember being back from Pittsburgh and the things I remember about him, not a lot of indecision," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said, adding Mendenhall is hitting the hole as soon as he sees it. "He's done a great job. He's done a great job in protection, too, so hopefully he keeps it going.
"But that's the guy we expected to see."