Parker: No holiday without travel by land
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Willie Parker's frustration with the running game is rooted in many facets, everything from his lack of production and decreased activity to what he said is an ineffective use of the two-tight offense and a departure from what he calls the "Steelers mentality."
But it is more than that.
With three games remaining and a big division showdown looming Sunday in Baltimore, Parker said it is that time of the season when teams with playoff and Super Bowl aspirations have to be able to run the ball.
It was OK, he said, for the Steelers to find their way with their run offense early in the season, enduring the tribulations of an offensive line that began the season with two new starters then lost guard Kendall Simmons and tackle Marvel Smith with injuries. But that transition period is over, or should be over, now, he added, especially for a team whose signature historically has been to run the ball.
"You run the ball in December and January, you have a good chance of winning," Parker said.
"It's not like the beginning of the season. December, you run the ball, you got a chance of winning."
"You need to," said tackle Willie Colon. "Come down to this time, teams that go far are teams that run the ball the most, that run it well."
Parker's concern for the running game, though, is intensified for another reason: He sees how the team the Steelers are trying to hold off in the AFC North -- the Ravens (9-4), whom they face Sunday in M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore -- are relying on the run.
The Ravens are using the same mix that Parker desires: Running the football with three backs to complement a defense that ranks second to the Steelers in the NFL.
They rank fifth in the league in rush offense, averaging 144 yards per game.
That is something the Steelers have been unable to do on a consistent basis this season, and something they rarely have been able to do against the Ravens. The last time the Steelers rushed for more than 100 yards against the Ravens was Oct. 31, 2005, at Heinz Field, when they finished with 101 yards on 28 carries.
"We can't abandon anything we do," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
"We'll have to try the no-huddle, throwing the ball, running the ball. We have to be who we are, we just have to be really good, though.
Yet, somehow, the Steelers have been able to post the second-best record in the AFC with little semblance of a respectable running game, a tribute, more than anything, to their No. 1-ranked defense.
The Steelers are one of only four NFL teams with three or fewer losses, but the other three teams -- the New York Giants (11-2), Tennessee Titans (12-1) and Carolina Panthers (10-3) -- rank Nos. 1, 3 and 4 in rushing offense. Right behind them are the Ravens, who rank fifth in the league. The Steelers rank 20th.
In fact, the only teams with playoff chances who have a worse rushing offense than the Steelers are the New Orleans Saints (No. 27), Indianapolis Colts (31) and Arizona Cardinals (32). But they are three of the top six passing teams in the league.
"We definitely got to get the run game going," said receiver Hines Ward.
"As the year goes down to the latter part of the season, it's hard for teams to go out there and sling the ball around. I think we made some plays in situational football that gave us an opportunity to win against Dallas, but you can't go out there and expect to throw the ball 40 to 50 times a game.
"We need to control the clock and not leave our defense out there as much. They're having a phenomenal year, and we need to help those guys out."
But Parker has to be careful not to put all the blame on the offensive philosophy.
Of the 11 first-down plays against the Cowboys in the first half, the Steelers tried running plays on nine of them. Of those, Parker carried six times for 4 yards. Mewelde Moore carried three other times for 14 yards.
Parker also carried on the first play to start the second half, gaining 4 yards. But, once the Steelers got behind, 10-3, they called only one other running play on first down -- a 2-yard run by Parker in the fourth quarter.
The lack of production on first down -- 12 carries for 24 yards -- led to too many third-and-long situations for the Steelers, particularly in the first half. Of their eight third-down conversion attempts before halftime, six were for 6 yards or longer. They only converted one.
"The only reason it's a concern is because it decreases our chances of winning," coach Mike Tomlin said.
"Down the stretch, you've got to be able run the ball in December football against good teams to close out games. We'll continue to work on it."
First Published December 12, 2008 12:00 am