Parker runs off with starting job

Given chance, he becomes Steelers' No. 1 back over Bettis, Staley

October 27, 2005|By BRENT JONES | BRENT JONES,SUN REPORTER

There was a moment during training camp last season when Bill Cowher realized he received the greatest of gifts for a coach. Cowher watched as a player, brought in to be no more than rookie fodder for the veterans, blossomed into a find. A real find.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker, now in his second season, will make his seventh start of the year when his team faces the Ravens on Monday night. Parker, firmly entrenched as a starter despite the relative health of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, is ninth in the NFL with 539 yards, capping off what Cow-her describes as one of those great underdog-makes-good success stories.

Parker was an undrafted free agent who rushed for just 181 yards as a part-time player his senior year at North Carolina.

"He came here a year ago as a college free agent, and we were really just filling out the roster," Cowher said. "He was a kid that didn't even play in college, played very sparingly. When we got him in camp, he really flashed his speed and some of the skills you are seeing now, but he was still working his way through this offense. But he flashed it enough last year that he made the roster and we used him, at times, on third down."

Bettis and Staley waged quite a battle for the starting position last year, but Parker's play has left little question as to who the primary back is now. Staley, in fact, has been a healthy inactive the past three games because Parker gives the Steelers' rushing attack, which is seventh in the league, an element the older backs lack.

Parker has six runs of 15 yards or more, using his speed to bounce plays designed between the tackles outside. At 5 feet 10, 209 pounds, Parker is built similar to the Atlanta Falcons' Warrick Dunn and the Kansas City Chiefs' Priest Holmes, and his shiftiness through the defense resembles those smaller backs as well.

It is the reason Parker has a stranglehold on the position.

"When Jerome is in, Jerome is a pound-it guy," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He's going to get you those hard 2, 3 yards up the middle, then bust a couple for 10, 15 yards. Willie is one of those guys that can do that but adds that extra threat of being able to bounce it to the outside and use his speed to get downfield."

Those in the know with the Steelers are confident Parker is no passing fancy. It is fitting that Parker physically looks like Holmes because, before it is said and done, his career may go down that path.

Holmes, a former Raven, entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Texas but has since become one of the league's most treasured backs, a touchdown producer like no other (73 since 2002). Holmes and Parker are the only two undrafted players in the top 20 in rushing this season, and both are adept at coming out of the backfield, running between the tackles and changing directions to make defenders miss.

It takes that kind of talent for undrafted players to make it. Of the top 30 running backs in yards this season, 14 were first-round picks and 24 were selected in the first three rounds.

"The late-round draft picks, the free agents that make it, it always starts out on special teams," said Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon, who coached Holmes for two seasons. "They have to prove some value to the team in an auxiliary area. Then they work their way in as a third-down-type back and earn their spurs that way. ... Then the opportunity arises when injuries or something else occurs."

The signs were there that Parker could be a special player last year when he rushed for 102 yards against a stout Buffalo Bills defense in the regular-season finale. It was a game he started in place of an injured Bettis and Staley, and he led his team to a road win despite the Bills needing a victory to remain in the playoff hunt. "I think at that point, you knew that he was a pretty good player," Cowher said.

Parker rushed for 272 yards and two touchdowns combined in the first two games this season, then hit a lull against the New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars when he failed to gain more than 55 yards or score a touchdown against any of those teams.

But in what was billed as the biggest game in Cincinnati in a decade, Parker again played spoil-sport, ruining the day for the Bengals by gashing their defense for 131 yards and a touchdown Sunday.

"It felt good to get in the end zone again," Parker said.

Cowher had little doubt that his unheralded new star would.

"I remember coming into this year saying he is a guy a little bit like [receiver] Antwaan Randle El; you just want to get the ball in his hands seven or eight times a game because somewhere within there, he may make a big play for you," Cowher said. "We were planning on using him on third down this year, but then the injuries came up, and he had a chance to start. He started the season with two 100-yard games, and really at this point, we're not looking back.

"I don't know if anybody could have foreseen it. But he certainly was a guy that seized the opportunity."

Notes -- The Ravens declared Ray Lewis (thigh), Ed Reed (ankle) and Alan Ricard (calf) out for the game. Kyle Boller (toe) is doubtful, and Mark Clayton (ankle), Ovie Mughelli (ankle) and Tony Weaver (toe) are questionable.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

NFL rushing leaders

Player, team Att. Yds. Avg.

James, Ind. 163 801 4.9

Alexander, Sea. 152 776 5.1

Dunn, Atl. 135 732 5.4

Tomlinson, S.D. 150 659 4.4

McGahee, Buf. 154 654 4.2

Jones, Chi. 134 641 4.8

Johnson, Cin. 140 609 4.4

Portis, Was. 123 544 4.4

Parker, Pit. 113 539 4.8

Barber, N.Y.G. 107 483 4.5

Jackson, Ari. 113 480 4.2

Anderson, Den. 112 478 4.3

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