First time he faced Buffalo, he said hello
Sunday, September 16, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Willie Parker carried 19 times for 102 yards that day in Buffalo.
The game meant little to the Steelers, Buffalo a mere way stop on what they hoped would be the beginning of a Super Bowl highway.
The Steelers already had clinched homefield advantage for the 2004 playoffs with a 14-1 record, and the coach rested many of his starters in the last game of the regular season.
It's why a rookie named Willie Parker played while Jerome Bettis rested.
Until that game, the little-known, undrafted rookie from North Carolina (where he was not a starter) had 13 carries for 84 yards. That day in New York, Parker did not start either, but he ran 19 times for 102 yards, including a 58-yard run that set up the Steelers winning score.
Willie Parker had burst onto the scene, and he has not stopped.
Last Sunday, Parker ran for 109 yards in a 34-7 victory against Cleveland. It was his 14th 100-yard game to go with consecutive seasons of 1,202 yards and 1,494 yards, a Super Bowl-record 75-yard run and a ring to go with it, and his first Pro Bowl last year.
Today, Parker gets to run against the Buffalo Bills for a second time,
only now when he runs through the tunnel at Heinz Field, everyone will know who he is.
"We certainly have our work cut out for us,'' Buffalo coach Dick Jauron said.
Parker helped change the face of the Steelers' running game, which long had been known in Pittsburgh as "smash-mouth." The Steelers of Franco Harris-Frank Pollard-Barry Foster-Jerome Bettis went the way of AstroTurf when Parker arrived. They never had a back like him, and smash-mouth changed to Fast Willie in a hurry.
He has proven that he not only can run for a lot of yards, but that he can run often. Even though he's no Bus at 5 feet 10, 209 pounds, Parker had the third-most yards in team history last season and his 337 carries ranked fourth.
The load did not ease last week when he ran 27 times. Two of those yielded gains of 25 and 22 yards. That gives Parker 22 runs of 20 or more yards since 2005, third-most in the NFL during that time behind retired Tiki Barber (27) and Kansas City's Larry Johnson (25), according to Stats LLC.
And still, he wasn't happy with it.
"I had a bad game last week," said Parker. "I have to pick it up this week. I just wasn't satisfied. I could have done a lot of things better as far as my reads running the ball and a lot of other stuff. I just got caught up being too anxious in the backfield instead of just hitting the hole."
Parker's 109 yards are fourth most in the AFC. Imagine what he might consider a good game.
"You're going to see a different Willie Parker in this game,'' he promised.
The Bills have done little to stop the run since that Jan. 2, 2005 Willie Parker coming out day in Buffalo. They ranked 28th against the run last season and. in their first game this season, they allowed 171 yards in a last-minute loss to Denver.
The news got no better when they placed starting free safety Ko Simpson on injured reserve, either. They also have lost linebackers Keith Ellison and Coy Wire to injuries, and cornerback Jason Webster.
"He was our most experienced defensive back and our most experienced corner, and we don't have much experience to replace him,'' Jauron said.
Among the reasons the Bills are not stout against the run is their philosophy on defense.
"Their thing is getting up field and rushing,'' Steelers guard Kendall Simmons said. "That's all they're trying to do. They're playing pass on the way to the run. That's all they're doing, they're firing up field and trying to get to the quarterback and, if they can get to the running back, they fall on him. That's their philosophy."
It would seem to play into the hands of the way the Steelers run their offense these days. With Parker in the backfield and, with a fullback such as Carey Davis also a threat to run and catch, the Steelers have more versatility than in the old smash-mouth days.
The Steelers swear it is not a finesse offense, though.
"It's the same for us, really,'' Simmons said of the line. "The plays are the same; they're just called different names. We pretty much attack everything downhill, not going side to side; that's one thing I like about it.
"I'm so used to having a headache after the game because we run the ball and pound it. I wouldn't want to go to a drop-back and they can pin their ears back. To me, that's our reputation and how it always has been. I hope we wouldn't change that. I want to be run first, make them put eight men in a box and let Ben go to work on them."