When he makes another return from yet another injury, Willie Parker will be wearing a protective brace on his shoulder that will restrict his ability to lift his arm above his head. This should provide a simple mandate for Ben Roethlisberger: Don't throw Parker, a two-time Pro Bowl running back, any high passes.
Parker will wear the brace because his shoulder popped out of joint and tore the labrum in a Nov. 3 game against the Washington Redskins, an injury that wasn't detected until Parker complained the next day that his shoulder was sore. The injury -- known as a shoulder subluxation -- is similar to one suffered by former Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson, who never had the shoulder surgically repaired and played a large portion of his Pro Bowl career wearing a similar type of brace.
After Parker missed five of the past six games, his return should provide the same effect as his brace: It will help stabilize an offense that has been disjointed and out of whack and should strengthen a running game that has missed his home-run presence.
"Makes all the difference in the world," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said about having Parker, who did not play in Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, in the lineup. "When you saw him flash in Washington, it was like, 'Oooh.' Nobody was blocking and he got 5 yards because of his speed and explosiveness. Mewelde [Moore] has done a tremendous job, but Willie has the explosiveness we look for."
Parker should be getting accustomed to these returns.
When he started the season opener against the Houston Texans, it was his first regular-season game since he fractured his fibula in Week 15 last season in St. Louis.
Then, after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in a Sept. 21 game in Philadelphia, Parker missed the next four games, twice having comeback attempts aborted when he aggravated the injury during the week.
He returned against the Redskins, rushed for 70 yards on 21 carries in a 23-6 victory, only to discover the next day his shoulder was partially dislocated. Now, he is set to return again, this time in Sunday's 4:15 p.m. game against the San Diego Chargers (4-5) at Heinz Field, just in time to help resuscitate an offense that has struggled because of injuries, poor execution and questionable offensive-line play. Not to mention eight interceptions and just one touchdown in the past three games by Roethlisberger.
"It takes the focus off the quarterback when [Parker's] in there," Arians said. "You have to focus on him and it sets up your play-action passing better and gives you more things to go to."
"Any time you have a back like Willie Parker, who can take it to the house, it definitely helps our offense," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "It makes us a little more explosive and teams have to defend that."
"A lot of times people associate him with his biggest and best attribute, which is his speed," coach Mike Tomlin said. "The thing that jumps out at me is he's a tremendous competitor, physically and mentally tough."
Parker will have to be tough to play with his injury because a running back uses his shoulder the way a knight uses his sword, both absorbing and administering blows. Despite not weighing even as much as San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, the 5-foot-10, 209-pound Parker has always shown a desire to run inside and never backed down from a collision.
He said he is not about to stop now, either.
"I'm going to be getting hit," Parker said. "A lot of people have played with injured shoulders before. Shoulders are sore. You just gut it out. I played with it the last game against the Redskins, the whole third and fourth quarter. I still played with it.
"Other teams are going through the same stuff. It's been a rough year for every team. It's been more physical, but no excuses. As a team, we got our own problems. We got to deal with them and keep moving."
With Parker out, Moore has rushed for 357 yards on 80 carries and scored five touchdowns in four starts, overtaking Parker (333 yards) as the team's leading rusher. Moore also caught 16 passes for 89 yards and one touchdown, giving him a team-high six touchdowns.
His worst rushing performance came against the Colts, when he gained only 57 yards on 24 carries. Despite scoring two touchdowns on 1-yard runs, Moore also was stopped twice at the goal line in the fourth quarter, back-to-back plays on which guard Chris Kemoeatu failed to block defensive tackle Eric Foster not once, but twice. That forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal and a 20-17 lead.
Ward said Parker is a "dynamic back" who "doesn't need much, just a little seam." But it won't matter if the offensive line, like the offense as a whole, doesn't perform better.
"Mewelde has come in and done a phenomenal job," Ward said. "It all starts up front. If our line is dominating, it definitely makes Willie's job a lot easier. But it's hard to get into a running flow with guys in the backfield.
"It's not because we're getting beat fundamentally; we're getting beat because we don't understand who to block. Willie, Mewelde, it's hard for anybody to get into a consistent flow."
Parker will try, injured shoulder and all.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published November 14, 2008 5:00 AM