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Fast Willie's wheels getting a lot of mileage
Fast Willie's wheels getting a lot of mileage
Monday, September 24, 2007
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Willie Parker ran for his fourth consecutive 100-yard game yesterday against the 49ers at Heinz Field.Based on the quality of competition -- three teams without a winning record last season -- and their absence from the 2006 playoffs, it would be the height of foolishness to so much as suggest the Steelers should have Super Bowl ambitions.
But based on their near-flawless play against those opponents it would be the height of foolishness not to suggest the Steelers are a team that can take its Super Bowl hopes seriously.
The San Francisco 49ers were the latest team to be rendered almost totally ineffective by the Steelers. The 49ers came to Heinz Field yesterday undefeated and doubtlessly with some serious aspirations of their own. They left soundly beaten, 37-16, and full in the knowledge they have significant deficiencies.
That same can't be said of the Steelers.
Their defense overwhelmed another opponent and has allowed only 26 points and no first-half touchdowns in three games. It held Frank Gore, who led the NFC in rushing last season, to 39 yards on 14 carries and contributed a touchdown of its own on cornerback Bryant McFadden's 50-yard return of an interception.
Their special teams were solid overall and spectacular in one area as Allen Rossum rambled for 98 yards for a touchdown on a kickoff return after San Francisco had taken a 3-0 lead.
Their offense was vintage Steelers, controlling the clock, getting big plays from Ben Roethlisberger, who looks very much like the 2005 version of Big Ben, and, most of all, getting the kind of always steady, sometimes sensational running from Willie Parker, which any team with championship aspirations absolutely must have.
It was the fourth consecutive 100-yard game for Parker and his fifth in the past six games dating to last season.
Because he is every bit as much Modest Willie as he is Fast Willie, there will be no self-promotional bellowing from this very grounded young man. But it's pretty clear Parker is emerging as one of the NFL's elite running backs. He was sixth in the NFL, third in the AFC, in rushing last season with 1,494 yards. He was third in the NFL going into yesterday.
Because he is small by NFL running back standards -- 5 feet 10, 209 pounds -- it once was believed Parker could never handle the heavy-duty inside work the Steelers require. He had the look of a complement to a Jerome Bettis, but never a replacement. It took a while to dispel that myth, and even after last season's outstanding play there were doubters. The truth of the matter is that he has a chance to be better than Bettis.
"He's a complete back," coach Mike Tomlin said. "He runs inside. He runs outside. He gets a lot of credit for his speed, and he's very fast, but he's a tough runner. He gets tough yards. He's a competitor. He gets better with each carry.
"He wants the ball. He wants to be part of it. He wants to be the reason we win."
He is a large reason why they win. Roethlisberger was outstanding in making plays yesterday. His ability to bide time, evade defenders and make crucial completions were mindful of 2005. But the Steelers are a team that must win by the run, and Parker gives them that opportunity.
He was supposed to be the second-best back on the field yesterday, behind Gore who ran for 1,695 yards last season. He clearly was not. He clearly was the best back on the field.
On his first three carries, which didn't come until late in the first quarter, Parker ran for 13, 5 and 6 yards. In a second-quarter drive that produced the offense's first touchdown, Parker ran for 23, 2 and 17 on his first three carries. He knocked off a 15-yarder in the fourth quarter. It's not just that he's a threat to go all the way every time he touches that ball, it's that he's capable of being stopped at the line of scrimmage and turn the play into a 4-yard gain.
At his news conference last week, Tomlin said, "We're going to ride Willie until the wheels fall off." That's what Parker was waiting to hear.
After his 24-carry game, Parker said, "They're not falling off. Hopefully, they're a long way from falling off. I'm not tired. I want more carries."
That's about as boastful as Parker will get. He's the anti-Chad Johnson. He doesn't want to draw attention to himself, he wants to draw attention to his team.
"It's not just me, give the credit to the guys up front," he said to open his postgame comments.
About the lack of attention he gets on the national stage, he likes it just fine.
"I just take it week by week and go out and play and at the end of the year, you [the media] can do the ranking.
"I don't care about all that. All I care about are the guys in this locker room. As long as we know in this locker room what I bring to the table, that's all that counts."
They know in the locker room and they're finding out beyond the locker room that Parker is for real, and a major reason why the Steelers are, too.