Minus backfield complement, Steelers will rely heavily on Parker

TAMPA, Fla. -- Willie Parker misses Jerome Bettis.

Misses him providing the muscle of the Steelers' running game while Parker provided the speed. Misses Bettis' wisdom. Misses his guidance.

"Now, I don't have that extra coach by my side," Parker said. "It's just me. There's no Jerome. He helped me out in '05, all season long, and he kind of (helped me mature) as a running back.

"Now, it's all about me."

That ramps up the pressure on Parker, as well as his offensive line, to perform at the highest possible level against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

The Steelers are throwing the ball effectively, which has helped carry them this far. However, a lack of offensive balance could prove to be a major problem if they fail to control the ball well enough to minimize the time that Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and the rest of Arizona's explosive passing game are on the field.

"I think they're definitely going to be more concerned with shutting down our pass because that's what we've been most successful at this season," center Justin Hartwig said of the Cardinals. "But the challenge is definitely going to be on us that, when our number's called up front (to run the ball), we have to get it done. It's definitely going to be a key for us to run the ball during the Super Bowl. We have to be effective doing that."

In 2005, the Steelers thrived with Bettis and Parker alternating in the Pittsburgh backfield. The combination of Bettis running between the tackles and Parker running around end was effective enough to allow the Steelers to rank fifth in the NFL in rushing and played a vital role in their 21-10 victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers piled up 181 yards on the ground, 75 of which came on a Super Bowl-record touchdown run by Parker, and Bettis headed into retirement the way few players are able to -- on top.

Back then, such dominance on the ground was as much a given for the Steelers as having a great defense. Today, Pittsburgh's defense remains great, but its running game has, at best, been inconsistent.

The Steelers had the NFL's 23rd-ranked running game. They closed the regular season by rushing for 176 yards against Cleveland, 116 by Parker. They opened the playoffs by running for 165 yards against San Diego, 146 by Parker.

But then came Parker's 47-yard outing against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game. With the Ravens repeatedly bunching eight or nine defenders at or near the line of scrimmage, the Steelers essentially surrendered the notion of having success on the ground and relied heavily on Ben Roethlisberger's arm.

In '05, the Steelers at least would have attempted to loosen things up in the middle by hammering away with Bettis. They don't have that capacity any longer, which, to some extent, is why they don't have a consistently strong running game.

"We don't really have a big back," offensive tackle Max Starks said. "We had a two-headed monster in '05, where it was a ground, pound, and then the burn-you-up-with-speed type of run game. You brought in Jerome running between the tackles, and we were trying to bowl you over, and then Willie Parker was going to exploit your edges and keep you off kilter. Now you have a run game that's more kind of zone-oriented -- kind of a cutback, slashing type of running game."

The Steelers miss Bettis' power. Parker misses the guy he could consult on the sideline about what the defense was doing and what, if any, adjustments to make.

Without Bettis, Parker needs to be sharper than ever above his shoulder pads.

"You've got to study more," Parker said. "You can't take things for granted, so to speak. So I just study, (stay) into my game plan and just go over things (in the playbook) almost every night before a game."

The Steelers' running game also suffered during the season from injuries to Parker and offensive linemen. After gaining 243 yards on 53 carries in the first two games, Parker suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for four games. Then he sustained a shoulder injury that caused him to miss a fifth game.

Parker was frustrated by missing time. But he also felt that the experience had its benefits because it forced him to work harder at physical conditioning.

"Injuries can frustrate anyone," he said. "I definitely battled it for my first time this season and it made me stronger. It made me better, actually. I worked harder to get back and get to where I'm at right now."

Rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall was lost to a season-ending injury, leaving, for a time, Mewelde Moore as the Steelers' only healthy primary running back.

Bruce Arians, Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, doesn't believe in being rigid with a particular system. He believes in adapting to the skills of his players. Unlike Parker, who does better when following a lead blocker, Moore excels at working from a no-huddle, spread-type offense, which was what the Steelers mostly used with him in the backfield.

In addition, the Steelers' offensive line, already reeling from the free-agent loss of standout guard Alan Faneca, lost two more starters -- guard Kendall Simmons and tackle Marvel Smith -- to season-ending injuries. That further weakened the team's ability to block.

Tight end Heath Miller also was lost to an injury, which eliminated the ability to use two tight end formations to enhance the running game. However, the Steelers did discover that with the strong performance of his replacement, Sean McHugh, they were able to utilize three tight ends effectively after Miller returned to the lineup.

While the team went through so much shuffling of personnel, defense and decent passing did plenty to help pick up the slack and allow Pittsburgh to continue winning and capture a second consecutive AFC North championship.

By the end of the regular season, the running game was back to resembling the dominance it once showed on a routine basis.

"All of a sudden, we said we've got a healthy, fresh, running back, and everybody else is pretty healthy on the offensive line and we've expanded our package," Arians said. "So going into the Cleveland game, the Browns have a really stout front. We knew they were going to play hard because they hate us and it was going to be a good test. If you can block (tackle) Shaun Rogers and those cats, you're going to be ready for the playoffs. We ran the ball really well. Willie popped out of there and looked like Willie. He hit the corner and took it to the house (on a 34-yard touchdown run)."

As a result of that performance, Arians was confident enough in his rushing attack to do something highly unusual for him -- call three consecutive run plays on the Steelers' opening offensive series in their divisional-round victory against the Chargers. After Parker generated 22 yards on those plays, Arians had no doubt the Steelers would win the game.

He is equally confident in the Steelers' ability to run well against the Cardinals, who had the NFL's 16th-ranked run defense. Arizona's defense has done well stopping the run during the playoffs, but it won't over-commit to doing so the way the Ravens did. The Cards also don't have big, powerful defenders up front.

"These are stunters, slanters," Arians said. "They run a lot of run blitzes, especially with (strong safety) Adrian Wilson and you have to account for him. It's like having a fourth linebacker out there. It's a different style of blocking, how we want to attack them, but we still have to stay balanced. It's critical. You can't get one-dimensional in this ballgame and be successful."

The Steelers no longer have Bettis in the backfield, and his powerful presence is still missed.

Yet, Parker believes he is up to the task of carrying the brunt of the rushing load.

"I'm definitely ready and we've been on the run lately running the ball," he said. "Now it's time for one last game to lay it all on the line."

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