Tomlin: 'Parker's our runner'
Willie Parker didn't play in three of the four preseason games, but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made it clear that he has no plans to rotate Parker and Rashard Mendenhall at running back.
"Willie Parker's our runner," Tomlin said Friday afternoon. "Rashard's done a nice job and he's going to get an opportunity to get his touches, but more important than anything else, Willie Parker is our runner."
Tomlin touched on a number of issues in his news conference previewing the Steelers' game against the Tennessee Titans in the NFL season opener Thursday night at Heinz Field, namely his concerns about the depth of the offensive line, the status of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and preparing for the possibility of seeing a Wildcat formation.
Most notably, though, Tomlin ended any speculation that Parker could split time and share carries with Mendenhall, the Steelers' 2008 first-round draft pick who injured his shoulder against the Baltimore Ravens last Sept. 29.
Parker had only four carries for 13 yards and a touchdown and one reception for 2 yards in the preseason, all against Washington, and is coming off a 791-yard season, his lowest season total since his rookie year. Mendenhall rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, a 3.1 average.
Tomlin was asked if the limited touches would have an effect on Parker.
"Hopefully, it won't," Tomlin said. "We'll see."
Parker's success might depend on an offensive line missing starting right guard Darnell Stapleton (knee), who has been replaced by Trai Essex. Tomlin admitted that the offensive line depth is a concern but not more so than last year, when left tackle Marvel Smith (back) and right guard Kendall Simmons (Achilles) were lost for the season to injuries. Smith's back problems forced him to retire last weekend, and Simmons remains unsigned.
"I'm not comfortable," Tomlin said, "but I can't tell you I was comfortable a year ago. We lost two starters in September, but we found a way to step up and deliver winning football. I'm not looking for comfort. Comfort isn't necessarily something that's part of this job."
Also providing Tomlin discomfort is the status of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who did not travel to Carolina. Tomlin said Timmons was visiting the doctor yesterday, and "we're holding out hope that he'll be capable of playing, but we really won't know until later in the week."
Timmons, who sprained his left ankle against Buffalo, is wearing a protective boot and is the only starter in jeopardy of missing the opener.
"You hate for that to happen to anybody," strong safety Troy Polamalu said. "He's a pivotal part of our defense and this team."
Tomlin, meanwhile, said third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon (shoulder) will be cleared to throw this week. Although the Steelers haven't used Dixon in a Wildcat package, Tomlin said they have worked on facing the direct-snap formation since the Organized Team Activity sessions in the spring, knowing that the Titans could use quarterback Vince Young in such a role.
"That's one of the trends in the National Football League," Tomlin said. "You've got to be prepared for it. You prepare for it just like you prepare for, potentially, people coming out in no-huddle or empty (offensive sets). A lot of times, defenses change when people empty the backfield.
"We're prepared for Wildcat. We've been prepared for Wildcat. I don't think our approach is going to change because we're playing the Titans and Vince Young is the backup - although he is a unique animal."
Tomlin also tried to dismiss the sight of Tennessee running back LenDale White stomping on the Terrible Towel following the Titans' 31-14 victory over the Steelers last December in Nashville as means for motivation.
"I'm not getting into that," Tomlin said. "If that is a motivating factor for us as we prepare for this game, we've got big problems. The reality is that this is a big game because it's the opener. We have quality football team. What happened last year for us is in our rearview mirror. I talked quite frankly about that. What the '08 Steelers did last year, is history. It's no different than what the '74-75 Steelers (did), as far as I'm concerned.
"So I'm not going to concern myself with something that LenDale White did a year ago. I'm sure Billy 'White Shoes' Johnson did something that could be viewed as disgraceful back when he played for the (Houston) Oilers."