Fast-but-patient Willie Parker

PITTSBURGH – Willie Parker has improved -- said the offensive coordinator -- since rushing for 102 yards against the No. 2 defense in the NFL last season.

Jerome Bettis said Parker has the speed to "hit a home run from any point on the field."

Parker said Bettis has taught him the patience to run inside, like a good Pittsburgh running back.

Parker can block and catch. There's really only one thing he can't do: start for the Steelers. And that makes no sense.

It's no wonder running backs coach Dick Hoak beat a hasty retreat out of the locker room Saturday night following the Steelers' 17-3 win over the Miami Dolphins. What coach would want to face reporters who bring such irrefutable logic?

Against the Dolphins, Parker carried only 6 times, but ripped off gains of 37 and 21 yards Saturday night, and it was hardly a fluke.

"I've seen him make those kinds of runs in training camp," said coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "I said earlier you have to see him make those kinds of runs in a game, and you saw that (Saturday night). You hate to say he's got to do it again, and he's got to do it again, but if he continues to do that over the next couple weeks he's certainly making a strong case to get in there."

Get in there and start?

"I think Willie has shown that he has the ability to become a starter," Whisenhunt said. "If he continues to make the plays he's been making, he certainly merits some consideration for playing time. He has two very good players in Jerome (Bettis) and Duce (Staley) that are proven guys. Even though Willie has done well in the preseason, he hasn't proven himself in the regular season, and that's just going to be a matter of time. But certainly with the excitement that he brings you give him consideration."

That Whisenhunt promises to consider Parker is the type of admission "Fast Willie" fans can rest their hopes on.

With the 30-year-old Staley injured, the Steelers turned to the 33-year-old Bettis, and he's run well. In two games, Bettis has carried 5 times for 18 yards, 95 percent of it up the gut, Steelers' style.

But Parker, as Bettis admitted, has "great speed back there." He adds another dimension. When the Steelers spread Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Cedrick Wilson wide and use Parker as the single back, as they've done in practice, they are a dangerous offense. But it also represents a drastic change in philosophy.

"This is a really power system," Bettis said. "And so once he has all the skills in terms of running inside the tackles and all that, then I think you'll see a different age in terms of what the Steelers have been used to. They've had real power backs throughout their history, and to have a guy who can hit a home run from any point on the field, that's significant."

Is Bettis -- the Bill Cowher-anointed opening-day starter is Staley remains out -- looking over his shoulder at Parker?

"If that's the case, hey, that's the case," Bettis said. "I'm filling in myself, so I'm not worried about it, no."

Parker runs the 40 in the high 4.2s but that doesn't mean this speedster is slight-of-build by any means. He's listed at 209 pounds and has a body-builder's physique. He might not be able to withstand 20-25 carries a game, but he's never proven he can't, either.

"He's a strong runner," Whisenhunt said. "He had a couple runs (Saturday night) that he got off arm tackles and got extra yardage, so the biggest thing with his inside running is patience. Willie is so fast that when he sees something, he wants to run too fast to it. When you're an inside runner sometimes you have to be a little patient. That's probably what Jerome is the best at; he has such great patience. And I think Willie has learned from Jerome and Duce and has gotten better."

"Patience is a virtue," said Parker. "You've got to be patient in this league. If you want to take anything the distance, you've got to be patient. When I run inside, I'm more patient now. I used to just take the ball and just run, don't know where I'm supposed to be at, just run, run as fast as I can. But this year I'm a little more patient."

Is he patient about waiting his turn with the first team?

"You've got to be patient," he said. "There are some great guys in front of me, so I've got to be patient about everything."

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