Steelers have fresh legs, edge at RB

PITTSBURGH – The last time the Steelers played the New England Patriots, Willie Parker was happy to stand on the sidelines in his street clothes.

"I was cheering my boys on," he said. "And I was excited just doing that."

But Parker has since become the straw that stirs the Steelers' drink. He's coming off a pair of 100-yard rushing games, is averaging 5.8 yards per carry, leads the league in yards from scrimmage and trails Cadillac Williams by only four yards in the NFL rushing race.

Obviously, things have changed a bit for Willie Parker.

"Well it is a big difference this year," he said. "I have a bigger role, so I guess I gotta pinch myself and wake up a little bit."

While Parker pinches himself to stop dreaming, his opposite number in Sunday's game might be pinching himself to stop the nightmare.

Corey Dillon, the leading rusher in last year's AFC Championship game with 73 yards, has gained just over that total in two games this season.

Dillon has rushed for only 99 yards for the Patriots and is averaging 2.7 yards per carry, which isn't a good sign for a running back who'll turn 31 in a month and is coming off the heaviest workload of his career.

Dillon attempted to refute the reports of his demise yesterday, but only seemed to punctuate the problem when he told Boston reporters: "I'm too old to be frustrated."

Is Dillon too old to remain an effective running back? He did rush for a career-high 1,635 yards on a career-high 345 carries last season, but he started that season with 244 yards at an average of 4.7 yards per carry in two games. He's nowhere near that pace this season.

"If you don't get the football, how can you do anything?" asked Jerome Bettis, who knows a thing or two about being written off.

"You have to peel the onion back a little more than just saying ‘He's not being effective.' If anything he's going to be fresher because he isn't beat up. That's what you should be worried about. What they're doing is they're setting him up. You have to defend all this passing game, and so you work all week [on the] passing game, and when they decide that's going to be the week to run the ball, somebody's in trouble.

"You can't be fooled. You cannot be fooled. Look at his attempts. I'd be willing to bet his attempts are at an all-time low for this time of the year."

Actually, Dillon's 37 attempts at this point in the season ranks as the third most in his nine seasons.

"Teams have probably been keying on him," said linebacker James Farrior. "We don't look at what he's done in those last few games because we know he's going to be geared up for this one and be ready to go."

Farrior could've been talking about Parker, who can't hold back his smile while talking about the upcoming game.

"Everybody will be watching, huh?" he asked. "Yep, it's going to be a big game. I'll just go out there and have fun, man, and take what they give me."

In the first meeting last year, the Patriots played it straight defensively and the Steelers rushed for 221 yards in a 34-20 win.

In the AFC Championship game, the Patriots changed tactics and held the Steelers to 163 yards. "What they tried to do was blitz the safety inside the tackles and bring that eighth defender not in the box but in the backfield," said Bettis. "They brought him and tried to pinch everything inside. That's what they really wanted to do: They wanted to keep everything inside those ends."

But with Parker, the Steelers have the speed to bounce plays outside.

"Now that's a true concern," Bettis said. "I don't think they can attack us the same way. I think early they will try to, in hopes it's successful, but if we burn them on one then I think they'll have to loosen up a little bit and that could open up some other things."

"It's tough when you've got a guy with that much speed," Farrior said of defending a back like Parker.

"It's hard to game plan against that guy because it allows your offense to do a lot more things with him and make the defense that much more thin. I'm glad I don't have to worry about that."

Speed kills. And so do young running backs.

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