While it's easy to target the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line as the culprit when trying to figure out the problem with the team's running game, another huge issue is that running back Willie Parker(notes) still looks like he's on the steep downside of his career.
That was the take from two NFL scouts who watched Pittsburgh's season-opening 13-10 win over the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night. While much of the emphasis during the broadcast was on Pittsburgh's failure to convert short-yardage runs, both scouts said the issue is much deeper.
"Pretty obvious. [Parker] dances too much, no burst, doesn't even read the holes very well," one scout said via email when asked to evaluate Parker's performance in the opener.
Parker, nicknamed "Fast Willie" because he had displayed so much speed in the past, finished with 19 yards on 13 carries and caught one pass for five yards. Top backup Rashard Mendenhall(notes) was no better, gaining six yards on four carries.
Overall, the Steelers managed only 36 yards rushing on 23 carries, a repeat of the problems they had with the running game last year on the way to winning the Super Bowl. In fairness, Pittsburgh was facing a stout Tennessee defense that was sixth against the run (93.9 yards allowed per game) last season.
As for Parker and Mendenhall, both were replaced by third-down back Mewelde Moore(notes) in the critical moments of the second half and overtime. Moore's rushing stats (five carries, eight yards) were no better, but he caught four passes for 28 yards and showed why he's a much better overall option than Parker in passing situations.
At least according to the other scout.
"Parker looks lost when you send him on a passing play," the second scout said, pointing out that Parker completely busted a play on the very first series of the game, failing to either get open quickly enough or block a lineman who broke free chasing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes). "Parker was in no-man's land and you could see by his body language that he had no clue where he was supposed to be. He didn't run a route and he didn't stay in to block. When the [Steelers] coaches look at that one, they're going to just shake their heads."
Throughout training camp and in the week leading up to the opener, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had expressed his support for Parker. After the game Thursday, Tomlin gave Tennessee some due respect and didn't specifically criticize any one person or unit. Still, he made it clear that the running game wasn't good enough.
"As good a defensive front as Tennessee has, we've got to do a better job if we're going to show up consistently in victory lane," Tomlin told the media contingent.
Likewise, the scouts said the problem is layered and not easy to fix.
"They won a title with that running game last year, but I wouldn't want to bet on them doing it again if they can't run," the latter scout said. "The line isn't good, but it's not that bad, either. I don't know if Mendenhall is any better than Parker, but he can't be much worse … Moore is nice, but if you play him full-time, you burn him out and they need him on third down.
"I know what Tomlin's trying to do [with Parker], he's supporting the guy all the way to the bitter end. That's why players are loyal to Tomlin. He won't embarrass them. But he's going to have to make a switch at some point."
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