Free Willie! - By Jason Seidling

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Duce Staley is hurt again. Not that this development is very newsworthy, as Staley has missed 20 games over the course of the past five seasons.

Staley's backup, thirteen-year veteran and future Hall-of-Famer, Jerome Bettis, last recorded a 1,000-yard season back in 2001. He also seriously contemplated retirement during the off-season, which does not bode well for counting on him for 25+ carries during the 2005 campaign.

Third-stringer Verron Haynes, a fourth-year banger from Georgia has displayed great running instincts in the past, and has already established himself as one of the league's top third-down backs, but he too is somewhat injury prone, missing nine games during his first three years in the black-and-gold.

All this leads us to what could be the unsung player among the Steelers' stable of backs, second-year speedster Willie Parker.

Before I get into why I think that the Steelers should have Parker splitting carries with Bettis, let me preface my debate by stating the following: Duce Staley's latest injury will more than likely last through the first couple of regular season games, no matter what management and the coaches say, and, after he is finally healthy, Staley should get an opportunity to win his starting job back.

Getting back to Parker, there is a big myth that needs to be disproved when it comes to him fitting into the context of the Steelers' offense: the misguided conception that Parker is too small and too shifty to run successfully in the Steelers' blocking scheme.

Well, if that is so, then how did Amos Zereoue, who is one inch shorter and two pounds lighter than Parker, average 5.2 yards-per-carry in leading the Steelers to within one game of the Super Bowl in 2001? How did Erric Pegram, who was 14 pounds lighter than Parker is now when he was the Steelers leading rusher on the 1995 Super Bowl appearing squad? Neither player fit the mold of a traditional Steelers back. But one thing these two guys have in common is that they took the team further than either Jerome Bettis or Barry Foster, the two best running backs the franchise has had since Franco Harris, ever did.

What the above information proves is that there really is no prototype when it comes to Steelers' running backs. As long as the offensive line does their job up front, as long as the passing game does enough to keep the safeties honest, then all the running backs have to do is make sure they hit the correct hole.

Last night's sub par performance notwithstanding, as the first-team line played only one series, nothing that the offensive line has done thus far in camp has shown that there will be any significant downgrade in performance during 2005.

Pro Bowlers Jeff Hartings, Alan Faneca, and Marvel Smith return to anchor the left side of the line, while Kendall Simmons, the team's top pick in 2002, has dominated at times. At right tackle, Max Starks has looked solid more times than not.

Simmons and Starks replace Keydrick Vincent, who left to join the Baltimore Ravens, and Oliver Ross, who jumped ship to the Arizona Cardinals, respectively. Those two plus the three Pro Bowlers combined to form a stellar line in 2004, one that led the team to the number two overall run offense.

As long as this year's unit comes even close to matching last year's production, it really will not matter who runs behind it.

That is where Parker fits into the equation.

First off, Coach Bill Cowher will probably be looking for one of his backs to spell Bettis, in hopes of keeping Jerome's carries around 15-18 per game.

Also, Cowher has always placed an emphasis on having a complete runner in there on third-down, and that is exactly what Haynes provides. Haynes is adept at running both inside and outside, is excellent at blitz pickup, a much underrated part of the job description, and has great hands out of the backfield.

Even after a year's experience, Parker has not displayed the ability to pickup blitzes and catches passes as well as Haynes has.

Therefore, I offer up the following advice for Cowher and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt on how to rotate their backs in Staley's absence.

Jerome Bettis should get the first crack at opening as the number one back. His carries, however, should be kept as limited as possible, because his value will be felt more so in the playoffs than it will during meaningless games against the Titans and Packers, to name a few.

Haynes should keep his role on third downs, because why change something that isn't broken? Also, because Haynes is so valuable in this role, why risk injury with him by exposing him to more carries when you have other capable players.

That leaves about 10-12 carries open for the backup tailback, a position that should be filled by Willie Parker.

Parker offers the breakaway threat that this team has not seen in ages. Consider this fact, before Parker's 58-yard run against Buffalo in last seasons' regular season finale, the Steelers longest run from scrimmage belonged to quarterback Kordell Stewart, on October 5th, 1997.

If the offensive line opens holes like they did in 2004, Parker offers the best chance to fully exploit those holes on the Steelers' roster. The Steelers need to recognize this fact and allow Parker to showcase his talents on a more regular basis in '05. The rewards could be well worth the gamble.

The verdict is in, with Duce Staley down, the Pittsburgh Steelers need to "Free Willie" Parker in 2005.