on February 1, 2009 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Perfect Parker: When he starts, Steelers win

TAMPA, Fla. — Willie Parker is the perfect running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers’ playoff record during the two seasons Parker has been in their postseason lineup: 6-0. Two trips to the Super Bowl. One Super Bowl victory, and a chance for another Sunday night.

Perfect.

For all the talk about Hines Ward’s knee, the offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger’s sore-or-not-sore midsection, Pittsburgh’s exceptional defense, Kurt Warner’s throwing, Larry Fitzgerald’s otherworldly receiving and Arizona’s surprising drive to Tampa, one factor may decide the Cardinals-Steelers game.

If the Steelers open running lanes for Parker, and one of the NFL’s fastest running backs is healthy and can break a run or two outside, all of the above may not matter. When Parker gets going, it becomes very, very difficult to slow the Steelers.

“When any team runs the ball and runs it well, they’ll take a lot out of the defense,” Parker said. “We are the Pittsburgh Steelers, we run the ball. That’s just what we do. We will get time of possession and it will be on our side. It just works out for the best.”

Parker showed that in the Super Bowl three years ago in Detroit. With Roethlisberger ineffective and completing fewer than half of his passes, the Steelers didn’t take control until Parker burst outside on a 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter — the longest in Super Bowl history. They went on to win 21-10.

Those outside bursts, and Parker’s tough runs between tackles, were missing from the Steelers much of this season after he sprained his left knee Sept. 21 against Philadelphia. He later injured an elbow. Parker ran for at least 1,200 yards in each of the previous three seasons, but he finished with 791 yards, his career low in four seasons as a starter.

Late in the season, there were signs Parker was returning to health. He ran for 116 yards and a touchdown against Cleveland on Dec. 28, then came back two weeks later with 146 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers in the AFC playoffs. He was held to 47 yards on 24 carries in the AFC championship game against Baltimore, the team that has controlled him better than any other.

“We had plays like the touchdown run against Cleveland that we probably blocked for four yards, a good, solid run, he took it 30,” offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “It’s nice to see that again. We missed that.”

Steelers right tackle Willie Colon said it’s simple: When Parker is running like he can, the Steelers’ offense settles into a perceptible rhythm that everyone on the unit can feel.

“You have to respect his speed,” Colon said. “He gets the offense grooving in their rhythm. That’s what we try to do. We try to get into a rhythm.”

That was difficult to do this season for Arizona, even though Edgerrin James is an accomplished runner with seven 1,000-yard seasons. He finished with only 514 yards as the Cardinals were last in the NFL in rushing. James has 203 yards in three playoff games to Parker’s 193 in two, so whichever team can get its back going in the Super Bowl may well end up winning.

Pittsburgh was No. 2 in rushing defense, while Arizona was in the middle at No. 16.

Having a healthier Parker has significantly helped an offensive line that has different starters at four of five positions since last season. Left tackle Max Starks is the only returning starter from that last Super Bowl, when he played at right tackle.

“We’re going to ride behind them,” Parker said of a line that began to improve late in the season. “We’re going to ride the wave. Whatever they do, that’s what the offense does.”

On Sunday, Parker will try to ride that wave to a second Super Bowl title in as many seasons as a playoff starter. To him, that would be the perfect finish.

“It’s not all about me, but I’m definitely undefeated in the postseason and I can definitely brag about it with my teammates,” Parker said.