OK... Show Me Again Steelers - By John Smathers

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

All is well, right? That fifth Lombardi Trophy is in the bag, and except for a few departures, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers are coming back mostly intact for the 2006 season. Let's just say it has not been one of those hand-wringing offseasons.

Willie ParkerBut that doesn't mean the Pittsburgh Steelers are without concerns. Or at least Steelers fans are not without a few. A recent Web poll asked readers what area of the Steelers game concerns them most. The results reveal that a security blanket has been ripped away, leaving Steelers fans feeling a bit, well, insecure.

According to the poll, fans are most concerned about the Steelers' running backs. As we are reminded all the time, the Steelers are a running team, and not just a running team, but a smash-mouth, power-running team. They grind it out. They run you over. No flash. No pizzazz. Just 'here we come ... try to stop us.' It's been a signature of Bill Cowher teams, with bruising running backs named Foster, Morris, Fuamatu-Ma'afala...and Bettis.

The funny thing is, not since 2001 has Jerome Bettis achieved the standard by which running backs are judged ... the 1,000-yard season. The best running backs have no trouble breaking 1,000 these days and now he's retired. But he is leaving the Steelers running game in the capable, speedy legs of Willie Parker, who achieved the standard last year and then some. But Steelers fans are unsure. Count me among them.

Woe is us. Parker rushed for 1,202 yards in 2005. But of the next four players on the rushing list, two are gone (Bettis, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El) and one (Duce Staley) was a healthy scratch most of the season. The fourth player, Verron Haynes, plays a crucial role (if the wrap-around draw on third down can be considered crucial). He sees very well the opportunity opened by Bettis' retirement. According to reports out of mini-camp, Haynes has packed on some significant muscle. But he might not be what the Steelers have in mind for Bettis' replacement.

That was to be LenDale White's job. Steelers fans had their hearts set on White as the team's No. 1 draft pick this year. He was hailed as the ideal replacement for Bettis in many mock drafts. He could split time with Parker, just as he did with Reggie Bush at USC. It would be Parker's speed and White's brawn. But not only did the Steelers not draft White, they failed to draft any marquee running back.

There are, however, two additions that would like to step into Bettis' shoes eventually. Word out of mini-camp was that Cedric Humes of Virginia Tech (this year's seventh-round pick) and free agent Mike Jemison had very good camps. Both are between-the-tackles kind of guys, but neither one is really on the fans' radar right now.

The Steelers might feel they have Bettis' replacement already in Staley, at least for the short term. In fact, the tandem of Parker and Staley, combined with the versatility of Haynes, should give the Steelers an even stronger running attack than any combination that involved Bettis.

I know that's sacrilege to some fans, but there it is. Unfortunately, no Staley conversation is complete these days without the phrase 'if he stays healthy.' Many fans don't believe he will, so Staley isn't the security blanket they are seeking.

And neither is Parker. Not yet anyway. Fans aren't ready to trust in Willie Parker. They love what he did last year, but he isn't what they've come to expect in a Steelers running back. He's not a bruiser. He's not a bulldozer. He doesn't punish tacklers. He's not Jerome Bettis.

To earn that love, Parker needs to change hearts and minds, and he can do it by proving last year was the rule, not the exception. Despite his lack of pedigree and the loss of his mentor (Bettis), Parker has to show me he can do it again. And he needs to produce more than just yards. Only two other backs (Reuben Droughns and Warrick Dunn) gained 1,000 yards and scored fewer touchdowns than Parker (four).

Yeah, I know ... that was Bettis' role and he played it well, scoring nine times. But he's gone and fans are used to seeing Staley in sweats. Parker needs to show me again.