It had been a long week for Willie Parker, the quiet third-year running back who stepped fully out of character after a loss to the Denver Broncos to pronounce the Steelers as too satisfied with their Super Bowl win and not hungry enough to repeat. They were stinging words, and while viewed as the gospel by many who saw them as an explanation for the team's poor play, they drew a private rebuke from Bill Cowher.
But if the week seemed long, the first half against the New Orleans Saints yesterday at Heinz Field seemed longer. The Steelers were trailing by seven points and Parker still wasn't hungry enough. In fact, he was starving for rushing yards. He had been handed the ball 10 times in the first half and responded with 26 yards. It was ugly.
But in the blur of two consecutive possessions, one late in the third quarter and the other early in the fourth, that all changed, as did the outcome of the game.
In two plays, Parker turned around the game and drove the Steelers to a 38-31 win and proved once again he is the kind of back the Steelers haven't had in a long time -- if ever. He has the speed that can change a game. He did it in the Super Bowl and he did it again against the Saints.
Postgame commentary after Willie Parker runs for 213 yards and two touchdowns as the Steelers beat the Saints, 38-31, at Heinz Field:
Parker tells Bob Smizik about his running style
On bulking up in the offseason
Parker's entire press conference
Bob Smizik asks Cowher to compare Willie and the Bus
Cowher's entire press conference
On nearly identical plays, though in opposite directions, Parker turned what looked like ordinary runs into game-breakers. On the first, he slashed toward the middle, but spotted an opening, swung to his left, reached the outside and was gone for 72 yards to the Saints' 14, from where he scored four plays later. On the second, he initially headed off-tackle but cut it hard to the right and was gone in a flash for 76 yards to the Saints' 4, from where he scored on the next play.
The first touchdown put the Steelers up by seven, the second by 14, a cushion they would need.
The fact he was brought down from behind on both plays says more about the speed of NFL running backs than anything about Parker's lack of it. It also gave him a lesson in humility.
"I didn't think they could catch me," he said. "I learned something new today."
For the game, Parker finished with 213 yards on 22 carries. It was the second-best rushing performance in Steelers history, trailing only Frenchy Fuqua, who rumbled for 218 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1970. Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson, who ran for 200 yards against Cleveland in 1964, is the only other Steelers player to run for 200 yards in a game.
Parker's harsh words last Sunday --"This year, it seems like we already got what we want, what's the use? What the use of going out there and selling out?" -- gave him much pause during the week.
He addressed the issue after the game. "A week ago, I kind of put it on my teammates by saying we weren't hungry. Coach [Cowher] pulled me into his office and said I can't be doing that because some people might take it the wrong way.
"So I took off from talking to the media this week and kind of looked at myself in the mirror. Should I have said it? I don't know if I should have or if I shouldn't have. I only know we're a much better team than we had been playing."
Parker was asked if he had heard from his teammates about his remarks.
"They are my teammates and we are real close. We are a team. The stuff we say to each other will stay with us. Some teammates came at me. But they weren't mad at me. They said, 'Willie, you were kind of right.' "
Whether the words will have a pronounced effect on the team remains to be seen. But if the Steelers, who raised their record to 3-6, in any way turn around this miserable season, Parker's candor and honesty will be remembered as being part of the reason.
Parker ran for 1,202 yards last season, the sixth best in Steelers history but he wasn't satisfied. He wanted to get bigger and he knew he had to get smarter.
"I kind of bulked up a little bit but I kept it a secret," he said. "I needed that to take all the punishment. I knew there was a chance I'd be playing on the goal line and in short yardage and I know I wanted those challenges."
As for the smarter, ask Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns.
"Willie is maturing," Roethlisberger said. "He understands he needs to be patient. There were a couple of times -- me being behind him, I see things -- where the old Willie Parker would have headed for the outside as fast as he could. But he's showing his maturation. He's being more patient."
Parker said, "I kind of took the foot off the pedal a little bit. I hit the hole hard but not as hard as I used to because I'm waiting for things to set up. I'm smarter running with the ball."
Parker has run for 847 yards in nine games, which put him on pace to run for 1,505 yards, which would be third best in Steelers history.
That's a lot of yards. But for a guy who picks them up in huge chunks such as Parker, it's hardly out of the question.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .