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Old 01-28-2009, 07:18 PM   #1
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Default Steelers RB Willie Parker vs. Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson

Matchup of the day

Steelers RB Willie Parker vs. Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson

By Matt Sohn
Jan. 28, 2009

This is the third installment of a five-part series dissecting the individual matchups in Super Bowl XLIII. Today we examine Steelers RB Willie Parker vs. Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson.

2008 represented the most trying season for Willie Parker since his rookie campaign of 2004. He struggled with a knee injury that forced him to the sideline for a four-game stretch starting in Week Four. A shoulder ailment kept him grounded in another game. When he was on the field, he was burdened with producing behind an offensive line toiling in mediocrity.

For the fourth consecutive season, Parker averaged fewer yards per carry than he did in the previous season, going from 5.8 in 2004, to 4.7 in 2005, to 4.4 in 2006, to 4.1 in 2007, to 3.8 in 2008. Although the club made the correct decision in not matching the exorbitant contract the Jets offered to free-agent OLG Alan Faneca last offseason, the Steelers — and specifically Parker — clearly missed the road-grading presence of the perennial Pro Bowl fixture.

Parker doesn’t fit the mold of the majority of running backs his size. At 5-10, 209 pounds, he’s only slightly bigger than the jitterbug, third-down scatbacks of the league, but his no-nonsense, straight-ahead running style is more reminiscent of the featured bell cows of NFL backfields. And make no mistake, Parker is the clear-cut No. 1 horse in the Steelers’ RB stable. He carried the ball 27 and 24 times in Pittsburgh’s two postseason games against the Chargers and Ravens, respectively, and falling short of the 20-carry mark on Sunday will likely occur only if he’s victimized by injury or the Steelers fall far behind quickly.

Seeing as he’s small and not elusive, how has Parker gone from undrafted unknown out of North Carolina to Super Bowl starter and owner of three straight 1,200-yard rushing seasons from 2005-07? Speed. It kills.

It’s not just Parker’s ability to run away from the pack in the open field. It’s that his whiplash acceleration allows him to reach the second level before the linebackers have even diagnosed run after their read-step. Just flip back to his 75-touchdown jaunt against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL to see how his burst can change the complexion of a game.

The key factor is his offensive line’s success in providing a crease, because Parker’s straight-line style renders him ill-equipped to create on his own. If the hogs up front do their part, such as they did vs. San Diego in the divisional round, Parker’s good for a 146-yard, two-touchdown assault. If the line fails to do so, such as was the case in the AFC championship game vs. Baltimore, a 47-yard dud — on 24 carries, remember — is in the works.

Arizona’s defensive front resembles the Chargers’ more than it does the Ravens’, but in 230-pound Adrian Wilson, the Cards boast an enforcer in the secondary that neither of the Steelers’ previous playoff opponents does. For that matter, Wilson packs a punch from his strong safety position perhaps no other NFL team boasts.

Although solid in coverage, Wilson is at his best in the box. He operates with a linebacker’s mentality, and his muscle-shredded physique makes him look the part. With the emergence of rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie over the second half of the season, Wilson has been green-lighted to creep closer to the line of scrimmage.

He’s taken advantage of the opportunity. Consider that Wilson recorded at least seven tackles on four separate occasions since Rodgers-Cromartie permanently entered the starting lineup in Week Nine, whereas he maxed out with six stops previous to midseason.

Parker’s lack of wiggle plays right into Wilson’s hands. Like Parker, Wilson boasts better vertical speed than lateral agility. Therefore, the most critical component for Wilson in defending Pittsburgh’s speed merchant is making sure he doesn’t get gridlocked in internal congestion on the stretch run. If he does, Parker has serious home-run potential because OLB Karlos Dansby is the Cardinals’ only front-seven edge defender with the closing speed to keep contain.

What should ease the Cards’ fears somewhat is the lack of creativity Pittsburgh has shown in getting the ball to Parker. They rarely target him in the passing game — that’s Mewelde Moore’s job — and toss sweeps are nixed in favor of traditional QB-RB handoffs.

Because of this, a few high-speed collisions between Parker and Wilson are in order. And what can we expect from these clashes? Think Tiananmen Square, circa 1989. Only this time, the tank opts not to stop.

Advantage: Wilson

Thursday's matchup of the day: Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Steelers CB Ike Taylor.

Stay with ProFootballWeekly.com all week long for continuous coverage of Super Bowl week, featuring daily analysis of key individual matchups, features, columns, notebooks, Q&A's, blogs and handicapping perspectives. Click here to check out our blogs — Super Bowl XLIII, Around the NFL, and Covering the Spread will all deal with the big game for the next week.
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