Steelers RB Parker sprinting to stay ahead

| Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Following a recent Steelers practice, Willie Parker stayed on the field after many of his teammates had retired to the showers.

He ran a series of sprints and at times had a sled with weights on it strapped to his bulging shoulders. After the extra work that is the rule rather than the exception for Parker, the sixth-year veteran said something that may bode well for a running game that proved to be rather pedestrian last season.

"I'm getting that speed back like I had two or three years ago," Parker said while still trying to catch his breath. "I'm faster than I've been."

The Steelers are counting on a healthy Parker — he missed fives games in 2008 with knee and shoulder problems — to bolster a running attack that ranked 23rd in the NFL last season with just under 106 yards per game.

And after averaging a career-low 3.8 yards per carry Parker is returning to his roots in that he is carrying himself as the player who broke into the NFL as an undrafted free agent — not the player who has made a pair of Pro Bowls and nearly won a rushing title in 2007.

"That's my mindset, man, just going back to my first year and doing the things I used to do," Parker said.

"He wants to be better so he's working a little harder than he did last year, and I don't blame the guy," Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "He's got a lot to prove in his mind, and he's on a mission to accomplish that so my hat's off to him."

One thing the 5-foot-10, 209-pounder wants to prove is that he is not entering the downside of his career, which can often be the case with 28-year-old running backs who have absorbed a lot of hits as Parker has.

In that sense, it is a critical time for Parker and not just because he is entering the final year of his contract. Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers' first-round draft pick in 2008, has fully recovered from a shoulder injury that prematurely ended his rookie season.

The Steelers are hoping Mendenhall can make the kind of jump that 2007 first-round pick Lawrence Timmons did in his second season. Coach Mike Tomlin is noncommittal, however, when asked how Mendenhall will factor into the running game this season.

"I'm just simply asking him to have the savvy and awareness of a second-year player," Tomlin said. "How he plays will determine his role."

There is little doubt that Mendenhall will push Parker if he stays healthy, something the latter said he welcomes.

"I love to compete," Parker said, "and Rashard's getting it out of me."

That was evident a couple weeks ago when rain forced the Steelers to practice indoors. Parker stayed afterwards to run. He was still working out even after some of his teammates had already changed and left the team's South Side facility.

Parker didn't run from the time the Steelers won the Super Bowl at the beginning of February until they resumed practicing in late April. It's apparent, however, that he hardly neglected his conditioning.

And that he has since made up for lost time.

Parker's stomach is flatter than a chess board, and he boasts a ripped upper body as well.

While the Steelers are finished with practice until the start of training camp at the end of July, Parker said he plans to push himself even harder while he is away.

His training will include regular sessions in his native North Carolina and Florida so he can incorporate heat and humidity into the workouts.

Tomlin said last week the top priority for the Steelers players should be returning for camp in good shape. One player he will not have to worry about in that regard is Parker.

"I love the work ethic," Wilson said of Parker, "and I think he sets a great example not only just for the young guys, but his teammates overall because he's putting it in."

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