PITTSBURGH (AP) — They gave Rashard Mendenhall a new blocker, and the opportunity to redeem himself following one of the most embarrassing weeks by any Pittsburgh Steelers running back.

Most of all, they gave him the football, and not just once or twice in a game already decided. They gave it to him when it was scoreless, and when they had a big lead. They gave it to him near the goal line, and in long-yardage situations.

Maybe that’s all Mendenhall needed after doing little for 18 months to show he deserved to be a first-round draft pick.

Only a week after coach Mike Tomlin wouldn’t let him off the bench in Cincinnati because he couldn’t correctly run plays in practice, Mendenhall ran over the San Diego Chargers for 165 yards and two touchdowns during the Steelers’ 38-28 victory on Sunday night.

He didn’t just successfully replace the injured Willie Parker, he made a big push to keep the job when Parker recovers from his left big toe injury. Mendenhall gave the Steelers (2-2) the goal-line back they’ve been looking for — he scored from the 1- and the 2-yard line — and ran for 70 yards during the fourth quarter alone.

“I was able to be me and be comfortable,” Mendenhall said. “All I wanted was a chance to be out there and to play and for people to be able to see me and who I am, because people haven’t seen me play too much to this point.”

Mendenhall might have grown up in one night, and perhaps the Steelers’ offense did, too, as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 333 yards and two scores, Hines Ward had eight catches for 113 yards and tight end Heath Miller made eight for 70 yards. The Steelers outgained the Chargers 497-251.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians also lined up 330-pound lineman Doug Legursky — whose new nickname is Bronko, as in Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski — as Mendenhall’s lead blocker near the goal line.

“We drafted Rashard in the first round and he showcased tonight what he can do. Once Willie gets back, we’ve got a great 1-2 punch,” Ward said. “We showed a lot of teams in the NFL that if we continue to stay on the ground, we have a nice offense.”

This certainly wasn’t the Mendenhall the Steelers saw when he gained only 103 yards in his first seven career games — the runner who appeared to be trying to get by on talent alone. Last season was a lost one for Mendenhall, who missed the final four months with a fractured shoulder, and this season was starting out that way, too.

It’s bad enough to get benched for fumbling, or not producing, or failing to block. But to get sent to the bench for not knowing the plays? These are the Steelers, the franchise of Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis, and that simply isn’t supposed to happen.

“It’s frustrating being a player, a competitor … last week not being able to play,” Mendenhall said. “When you finally get a chance, you’ve got to be able to take advantage of any opportunities you get.”

Mendenhall heard himself being called a wasted draft pick, and a soft runner whose personality didn’t fit that of the team he played for. What apparently got to him was the message sent by his coach.

“A lot of people have been down on him, so he definitely had something to prove,” Parker said. “He had a good week of practice, when it was all about him. He definitely paid attention to all the little details, he took it to the practice field and he came out and played like he practiced.”

Ward also could tell that Mendenhall was motivated.

“There’s a maturity factor,” Ward said. “It’s his second year in the league, and the light really hasn’t gone on yet. You’re going to play the way you practice. Coach Tomlin challenged him and he got his opportunity, and he carried the workload. He responded, and he’s going to be a special back for years to come.”

With Parker still recovering, Mendenhall is expected to remain the starter Sunday at Detroit. Before Parker was hurt, Parker played two series for every one that Mendenhall got, but that could change, too.

“Wanting to be great and to produce at this level, that’s something I’ve been working toward since I’ve been here,” Mendenhall said.

On Monday, the Steelers released running back Isaac Redman, the former Bowie State player who had a standout training camp, and brought back defensive end Nick Eason.

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