No Jerome Bettis. No Duce Staley. No worries, apparently. Pittsburgh didn't have the two veteran running backs--Bettis has an injured calf, and Staley is recovering from knee surgery--for Sunday's opener against Tennessee, but the Steelers didn't change their offense. Not even with Willie Parker, a second-year man who couldn't win the No. 1 job at ACC also-ran North Carolina, in the lineup.
"The thing we started to do last year was to be tough and physical and run the ball no matter what," says offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. (Pittsburgh rushed on 61% of its plays in '04, the highest percentage for an NFL team in 20 years.) "Now we're going to go with Willie until he can't go."
Using a combination of speed, shifty change of direction and surprising power for a 5'10", 209-pound back, Parker exploded for 161 yards on 22 carries--in less than three quarters of work--to key Pittsburgh's 34-7 rout of the Titans at Heinz Field. After watching Parker juke past him for runs of 25, 45, 15 and 14 yards, Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth said, "He's fast, and he's slick. It's like the guy had Vaseline on."
Parker rushed for 1,801 yards as a senior at Clinton (N.C.) High in 1999 and signed with Tar Heels coach Carl Torbush. But Torbush was fired after Parker's freshman year, and when John Bunting and his staff took over, Parker got a bit lost in the running back shuffle. "We tried to play the hot hand," says Bunting. "At times Willie had it, other times someone else had it." Parker started only five games total as a sophomore and junior and three more his senior year, when he carried 48 times for 181 yards as one of four backs used by the Tar Heels. Those aren't the kind of numbers that normally get a back noticed by the NFL.
But a former North Carolina high school assistant--Pittsburgh scout Dan Rooney Jr., son of the Steelers' owner--had seen Parker play and kept in touch with him through college. After Parker went undrafted in 2004, Rooney recommended that he be signed as a free agent. Parker made the 53-man roster and got a few carries in four games, then Pittsburgh took a good look at him in the regular-season finale. With the Steelers resting most of their starters, Parker rushed for 102 yards on 19 carries against the Bills.
That's the kind of performance that can help a guy put a frustrating college experience behind him. "I guess you're looking for an 'I told you so,'" Parker said. "I let bygones be bygones. If I had it to do all over again, I'd still go to North Carolina."
Parker's college career has left him humble--just the way Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher likes his players.
Pittsburgh's injury-depleted ground game is in good hands with Parker.