By Mark Viera
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 16, 2009
PITTSBURGH, Jan. 15 -- On the top shelf of his locker, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker keeps a placard that reads, "Perseverance." He had it made earlier this season, he said, when he was stressed and battling injuries. He looks at the sign every day.
In college, he learned perseverance after spending time on the bench. Last weekend, he showed perseverance against the San Diego Chargers. And this weekend, he will surely need perseverance against the Baltimore Ravens.
By rushing for 146 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-24 win last Sunday against the Chargers, Parker outran the injuries and inconsistencies that have nagged him this season. But the afterglow of his performance against the Chargers has not lasted as the Steelers prepare to face the Ravens in the AFC championship on Sunday.
Finally healthy, Parker could play a pivotal role against the Ravens' engulfing defense. The Steelers defeated the Ravens twice this season, by a total of seven points, and the third act should similarly feature dominating defense and plodding, grind-it-out offenses.
"It's going to be a war out there," Parker said. "We just got to go out and fight."
Parker had little or no role in the two previous games. On Sept. 29, he did not play because of a knee injury. On Dec. 14, Parker was limited to 47 yards on 14 carries. Now, with Parker healthy, the Steelers are hoping his performance will be different.
"Willie has that type of personality that when he feels good he has a bounce in his step and it permeates throughout a football team," Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters on Tuesday. "Him feeling good physically and mentally may be rubbing off on a lot of people. Hopefully it is."
Before Parker was in the spotlight in Pittsburgh, he was on the bench at the University of North Carolina. Parker clashed with the coaching staff when John Bunting took over for Carl Torbush after Parker's freshman year. He only played a limited amount for the Tar Heels.
"Obviously there was more we could have gotten out of him," André Powell, the former North Carolina running backs coach, said Thursday in a telephone interview. "That goes both ways. That was some of us, that was some of Willie. For whatever reason, we were not able to connect."
Powell, who currently coaches Clemson's running backs, added: "He learned to hold on to his dreams. That obviously shows. Based on what's happened, a lesser man would have given up."
Parker came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie in 2004, but he quickly became a revered figure among Steelers fans. In his second season, he took over the starting role from Jerome Bettis, who was in his 10th season with Pittsburgh. (Bettis retired after the 2005 season.)
In that season, Parker helped jolt Pittsburgh to a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. His 75-yard touchdown run, the longest in Super Bowl history, has become his signature moment in a Steelers uniform. The scintillating play, along with his reported time of 4.23 seconds in the 40-yard dash, helped cement the prefix "Fast" to his name.
But this year, after three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, Parker has been slowed by a knee injury that sidelined him for five games. The Steelers' run-dominant offense has been replaced by one that, until last week, favored passing the ball.
As a consequence of his injuries -- in addition to the thin depth on the offense line, which lost two starters to injury and guard Alan Faneca to the New York Jets in the offseason -- Parker rushed for only 791 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season. He had four 100-yard games.
In Parker's absence, the Steelers relied on Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell, both of whom are downhill, between-the-tackles runners. But Parker has recently started to resemble his old self, and Pittsburgh has benefited.
"I think it helps our confidence," tackle Max Starks said of having Parker healthy, "plus it helps our versatility as an offense because he provides a different dimension in his running style. Willie can run between the tackles but he can also bounce it outside."
In the Steelers' regular season finale, Dec. 28 against the Cleveland Browns, Parker rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown to help lift Pittsburgh to a 31-0 win.
Before the playoff game against the Chargers, Parker talked about earning back respect for Pittsburgh's ground game. Appearing to be healthy, he helped to do that on 27 carries. Parker ran simple zone running plays, often pounding through the heart of San Diego's line.
"When he's not healthy, you can tell that he's not running as fast or running as hard," Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata told reporters on Wednesday. "You saw in that San Diego game, he hit that corner and got around it."
The Ravens will pose a daunting challenge up front. With a 3-4 defense Starks described as "exotic," Baltimore can bring a heavy blitz and cause mismatches in protection by switching fronts.
"They say they run a 3-4 defense but it's a very loose term of the word 3-4," Starks said. "They have three defensive linemen in there and they have four linebackers but they can line up anywhere on the field. That presents the challenge of trying to declare and put a guy on a guy."
Asked about the AFC championship, Parker said: "I've got a lot of confidence going into the game. I definitely feel I can make plays and help this offense out."
Baltimore struggled early last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. In a 13-10 win, the Ravens allowed running back Chris Johnson to roll up 72 yards on 11 carries in the first half before he exited with an ankle injury. The Ravens' rush defense was ranked third in the NFL in the regular season.
The Ravens, a wild-card team, have played 17 straight games without a weekend off and there have been questions about whether they are starting to wear down. Such questions have vanished from the Steelers' locker room, especially in the back corner where Parker wore a bright smile on Thursday afternoon.
"I was out there struggling, trying to play, make plays and stuff," Parker said. "Now it's kind of coming along; everything's working out for the best. I'm back to full speed and back running, and having fun."