Behind enemy lines: Pittsburgh

Big Ben Roethlisberger is back, and so is the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, which is getting big production from its big quarterback and also ranks second in the NFL in rushing behind the exploits of speedy Willie Parker. The Steelers own one of the best-looking 2-0 starts in the NFL, and Mike Tomlin can be the second coach in Steelers history to start 3-0 in his first year with the team.

Big Ben is back.

Ben Roethlisberger, whose 2006 season was as bad as his motorcycle accident, has thrown for five touchdowns and one interception and has a passer rating of 101.7.

His offense has outscored the opposition 60-10 and his Steelers are 2-0. Life is good again for Roethlisberger, who had the best two first seasons of any quarterback in NFL history when he was 13-0 as a rookie and became the youngest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl his second season.

"He's great," said rookie tight end Matt Spaeth, who has two touchdown receptions from Roethlisberger. "You see him getting away from guys and making plays. He puts the ball on the money and does a good job of getting us in and out of plays."

Roethlisberger, after missing the opener because of an appendectomy, started last season with seven interceptions and no touchdown passes in his first three games. It did not get much better as the Steelers went 2-6 through the first half of the season to open defense of their Super Bowl.

But he's been injury free, he has a new offensive coordinator, a new offense, more say that offense and he's more mature.

"It feels good to know that in the second half when you have at least at three-point lead, you aren't just going to run the ball every play," Roethlisberger said. "We were used to doing that in the past, but I think it's good to mix in a few passes here and there. I think it still keeps defenses on their toes."

Roethlisberger has completed passes to nine different receivers.

"It's good to spread the ball around," Roethlisberger said. "Everyone I can think of caught a ball tonight and that's my goal going into every game, to try and get everybody at least one ball."

***** ***** *****

Coach Mike Tomlin plans to run Willie Parker until he drops, in games and during the season.

"We're going to ride Willie until the wheels come off," Tomlin said. "He's game for that, he's in great physical condition, he wants the ball, he's a competitor and he's showing he's capable of doing that."

Parker wants more. He said in training camp that he wanted to stay on the field, on first, second and third downs. Tomlin uses backup Najeh Davenport on third downs but he's been riding Parker every other time and said that won't stop until Parker does.

"He's getting better with each carry as these games go on, and I'm starting to realize that about him, he's a rhythm runner," Tomlin said. "So we're going to feed him. We're not going to make any bones about that."

Parker has 50 carries in two games, for 235 yards. It's much too early to say it's a pace, but Tomlin makes it sound as if it is and that 400 carries for Parker may not be too much. Davenport, Parker's backup, has 14 carries for 89 yards. He's played on third downs and in garbage time. Fullback Carey Davis is next with four carries.

"We're going to play some people but Willie Parker is our feature runner and that's no secret," Tomlin said. "When he needs a blow, he's going to get a blow; when he doesn't, he won't.

"Najeh has been kind of our third-down feature back, he's been our closer. Najeh has a significant number of carries here these first two weeks. He had six carries the other day; Carey Davis had a carry. So we're spreading the ball around but we're going to ride with Willie Parker because we recognize what he is."br> Last season, Parker carried 337 times, fourth most in club history, for 1,494 yards, third highest. He caught another 31 passes.

There's a fear by some that Parker could fall victim to the Curse of 370, a so-called affliction to those runners who carry at least 370 times in one season. Many who have hit that number, including playoffs, fall victim to injuries or leg burnout, according to the theory.

Because he is so quick and fast -- thus his nickname, Fast Willie -- Parker was regarded as a runner who needed to get outside to make his yards. He's proven he can do it inside, too. "Everybody looks at my speed and says he's just so fast. They look at me as an outside runner," Parker said. "I'm always going to carry that. But I'm always banging inside too. I'm going to get the yards whatever it takes."

Tomlin first thought of him as an outside runner too before he took the Steelers coaching job and began to watch Parker on film and then up close.
. "I think he is improving in that area, in terms of showing his patience on the inside tracks, while picking and finding holes," Tomlin said. "He is a finisher and he has more power than people give him credit for. I really think the evolution of his game as an interior runner was centered on his growing patience, in terms of letting things develop in front of him.

***** ***** *****

The Steelers rank No. 1 in third-down conversions in the NFL, having made 18 of 33. No surprise then that their time of possession averages nearly 36 minutes a game.

"Our third-down conversion definitely has given us opportunities to control the clock," WR Hines Ward said. "All third-down conversions are just three more plays you buy for your team."

***** ***** *****

The Steelers can open at 3-0 for the first time since Bill Cowher's first season, 1992. No other Steelers coach won his first three games.

***** ***** *****

The Steelers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher against them in the past 27 games and just once in the past 52, including playoffs.
"Hopefully, we can keep it up forever," Pro Bowl NT Casey Hampton said.

***** ***** *****

The Steelers became the first franchise to win 500 games in the AFC. Their record is 500-474-20.

"It's an honor to be a part of history, today's 500th win," said coach Mike Tomlin, who earned his first victory in Heinz Field. "That was an important thing for us and they were excited."

Niners Digest Top Stories