With Parker, Steelers missing Bettis more as leader than runner

| Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006

Willie Parker is proving the Pittsburgh Steelers' signature running game didn't go away when Jerome Bettis retired.

The Steelers obviously miss Bettis, as evidenced by their 3-6 record a season after they won the Super Bowl. Few NFL players are as influential and respected as Bettis was, and the Steelers haven't replaced the leadership skills he possessed even after he quit being a 1,000-yard back.

On the field, Parker -- coming off one of the best games by an NFL running back this season -- is proving he can handle the multiple roles Bettis filled during his final few seasons as a short-yardage and goal-line back.

"He kept hearing how we needed to have two backs," wide receiver Hines Ward said Wednesday. "He's silenced all those critics who said he couldn't be an every-down back or he can't do this. Willie just needed to be Willie."

No longer does Parker automatically come off the field on third down or when tough yards are needed, the kind of yardage Bettis nearly always gained during 10 Steelers seasons.

He gained 213 yards in a 38-31 victory over the Saints on Sunday, the only 200-yard game by an NFL back this season. The 2004 free agent from North Carolina is only the second running back in 40 years to have a 200-yard game after not being drafted; Priest Holmes first did so for Baltimore in 1998.

There's more. With runs of 76 and 72 yards, neither of which went for a touchdown, Parker became the first back with two runs of 70-plus yards in a game since the Lions' Barry Sanders in 1997. Parker is fourth in the NFL with 847 yards and fifth with a 4.6 rushing average.

Parker goes Sunday against the Browns as the Steelers attempt to win on successive weeks for the first time this season. He had 130 yards, including an 80-yard TD run, last season in his only previous start against them.

"Willie Parker's one of those guys, like a lot of the great backs in my mind, you hold him and you hold him, then you get that one play where he makes one guy miss," coach Bill Cowher said. "Other running backs, you're looking at a 20- or 30-yard gain and he's a guy that takes them 60 or 70."

All this from a player who, despite arguably having more speed than any back in Steelers history, went undrafted for seven rounds and could have signed with any NFL team. Only a year later, he ran for 1,202 yards despite going into the 2005 training camp as the No. 3 running back.

"The thing about Willie is he's just a different back," Ward said. "Pittsburgh has always had the bruising, pound-it-out type backs but Willie, you don't have to block too long for him. He can take a 4-yard play into an 80-yard TD, that's the kind of explosive speed he has."

When Bettis and three-time 1,000-yard back Duce Staley were hurt in camp last year, Parker became a starter and had five 100-yard games. He has four more this season.

He also has eight touchdown runs, or twice as many as last season. Then, Parker relied almost exclusively on his speed; now, he doesn't hesitate to cut inside for yardage rather than always looking to get outside.

"There were a couple of times (Sunday) he thought he had the outside, but he stayed patient and found the hole inside. I think that shows the maturation of Willie Parker," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

Or, as Parker said, "I'm trying to take my foot off the pedal a little bit."

He also showed he has a bit of Bettis in him when he observed last week that some Steelers might have grown comfortable after finally winning a Super Bowl. Bettis might have been more tactful, but Parker's message seemed to have a positive effect.

"Should I have said it• I don't know if I should have and I don't know if I shouldn't have, but we're a much better team than what we've been playing," Parker said.

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