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10-17-2006, 05:07 AM
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Willie Parker is living up to his nickname. He's off to a Fast start.

Even without Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, the Steelers' ground attack has maintained its punch five games into the season. They also found someone to fill the old Bus goal-line role. His name is Parker.

Parker ran for 109 yards and scored two touchdowns Sunday against Kansas City. His five touchdowns this season are one more than he scored all of last season when Bettis replaced him whenever the Steelers came within 5 or 6 yards of the goal line.

Parker is the third-leading rusher in the AFC with 434 yards and he's No. 2 among those who have not played more than five games. Buffalo's Willie McGahee leads the AFC with 505 yards rushing but the Bills have played six games, one more than Parker and the Steelers (2-3). Denver's Tatum Bell has 470 yards after five games. Parker is second only to LaDainian Tomlinson, who has seven rushing touchdowns.

"Willie's doing a great job," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "A lot of people thought he wouldn't be able to do it because he's not the biggest guy, but Willie's just a little ball of muscle -- when he gets in there, he can really get a push."

Parker, 5 feet 10, 209 pounds, proved he could withstand a full season running against the big boys in the NFL when he ran 255 times for 1,202 yards last year. He's on a pace to better that.

Parker had 404 yards rushing after five games last season, counting his 172 yards to open the season against NFL soft touches Tennessee and Houston. He has eclipsed that this season even though he was held to 20 yards on 11 attempts in Jacksonville in the second game of the season. At his current pace, he would rush for 1,389 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Franco Harris set the Steelers' rushing touchdown record with 14 in 1976. Jerome Bettis ran for 13 in 2004. Receiver Louis Lipps set the overall touchdown record with 15 in 1985.

Parker is running more and producing more. His 106 carries put him on a pace to carry 339 times, 84 more than last season, which would be a 33 percent workload increase.

"He's a tough kid," guard Alan Faneca said. "He takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. Little guys make it in this league. He's not a little guy, he's just littler than Jerome was."

The Steelers also discovered someone to complement him the way Bettis did last year. Najeh Davenport ran 12 times for 78 yards and one touchdown against the Chiefs in his first extensive play with the Steelers, who signed him after the first game. The Steelers may use him to spell Parker and not put him into the goal-line role, but at 6-1, 247 pounds, he gives the team a big, veteran back with some speed who can take some of the carries off Parker.

"Najeh ran hard," coach Bill Cowher said. "It was good to see him in there."

Davenport added more versatility and depth to the Steelers' running game. He signed after the Packers gave up on him after four years and many injuries. He did not play in the Steelers' second and third games, but in San Diego, he took a short pass and ran 32 yards with it.

"It seems like he just got here," Faneca said. "To pick it up enough and get in a game and help us out like he has, that's big. That's something, especially for a running back coming in and getting a feel for a system and see how we're doing and see how we look at plays. To do that in a month, that's asking a lot."

Suddenly, the worries about the Steelers' running game without Bettis and with an ineffective Staley walking the sideline in sweats every game do not seem as acute today.

"I think you saw it yesterday. We did a good job," Faneca said. "Everybody got their hands on the ball back there. We were clicking up front and I think we have to do our job up front, foremost, and give them the holes to run through.

"We have to get that going before we get the passing game going and everything kind of plays off of that. I think everybody knows that."

NOTES -- The Steelers reversed a move they made on Saturday: They released rookie cornerback Jovon Johnson and signed quarterback Brian St. Pierre to the 53-man roster. Also, they released rookie running back Cedrick Humes from the practice squad and signed defensive end Shaun Nua.