Fast track suits Fast Willie and Steelers

The Steelers and Minnesota Vikings enter today's game with 8-5 record. But a soft spot in the Vikings' defense gives the Steelers the edge today.

Willie Parker has it all. He's the starting tailback and leading rusher for the contending Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) as they head down the home stretch.

And Parker's not the star. He doesn't have to face the glare the way Jerome Bettis does, so the second-year speedster from nowhere can kick back and wait for his day.

Last Sunday wasn't his day. That was a muddy December home game made for Jolly Jerome, and it's been celebrated as such all week and into today's game at Minnesota against the 8-5 Vikings … in a dome.

Parker waits, coolly. Most of the questions he fielded this week dealt with becoming a 1,000-yard rusher. The Steelers haven't had one since 2001, when Bettis led the league until these Vikings hurt him in game No. 11. Bettis was forced to the sidelines with 1,072 yards.

Today's one o'clock game beckons Bettis to exact his revenge. There's also the mouthy Vikings nose tackle, Pat Williams, who crowed earlier in the week about shutting Bettis down. Bettis smiled and pointed to his last game against Williams, when Bettis rushed for 114 yards against the Buffalo Bills early in that 2001 season.

Parker can match that. He busted up Williams and the Bills for 102 yards in a half last season. Chukky Okobi handled Williams that half. But here's Williams, now clogging the middle for the Vikings, and the Vikings do clog. It's their defensive style.

This was brought up to Parker the other day. It was brought up that the Vikings' defense is a bit slow and that the track is a bit fast. It was brought up to Parker that he could get the 144 yards he needs for 1,000, all of them, today, because it appears a perfect storm is gathering.

Parker reacted like someone had struck a nerve. The conversation may have come a little too close to the game plan for his comfort.

"It seems like a great match-up but you never know how it's going to turn out," Parker said. "I hope for the best."

The Vikings rank 17th in the league against the run; they allow 112.1 yards per game. Per carry, the Vikings rank 21st; they allow 4.1 yards per carry.

It's their best ranking of any of the four major categories (21st pass offense, 23rd rush offense and 24th pass defense), but they've served up the yardage to the scatbacks when they've played them. While the Vikings held Steven Jackson, Artose Pinner, Reuben Droughns and Samkon Gado in check the last four games, they allowed Tiki Barber and Thomas Jones to run for 95 and 89 yards in the weeks preceding that. Earlier in the year, Warrick Dunn rushed for 126 and Cadillac Williams rushed for 148 against the Vikings.

Of course, the Steelers will have to block, and with rookie Trai Essex playing left tackle the offensive line has played only one solid game in the last month. That was last week against the Chicago Bears, so perhaps Essex is coming on.

He likes his match-up this week. After breaking into the league against the likes of Terrell Suggs, Dwight Freeney and Alex Brown, Essex will go up against fellow Big-10 rookie Erasmus James today. The two have never met on a field.

"He looks bigger than he did in college," said Essex. "I think he added some strength because he comes off the ball pretty hard and has a pretty good bull rush. But with that size it looks like he lost a step."

James has only two sacks this season. Opposite end Lance Johnstone leads the Vikings with 6.5 sacks.

Of course, the game's being played in a dome. The Steelers, and Essex in particular, had terrific problems with the crowd noise three weeks ago at Indianapolis' dome.

"The more you practice, the more in tune you get," Essex said. "It was more so the tackles, and you're not going to face those types of defensive ends too many times in the NFL. How can you top Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney?"

Essex was asked if his experience will help against a rookie, even if that rookie is highly touted.

"He's not Dwight Freeney," Essex said with confidence, "at least not yet."

And Essex isn't Marvel Smith just yet, either, but he can take another step today. And if Essex takes another step, so will Parker. And if that happens, the home stretch becomes even more interesting.


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