Notebook: Young stars rise to occasion

Just days ago, the Steelers signed running back Willie Parker and cornerback Ike Taylor to new long term contracts. On Thursday night Parker displayed a new, more decisive running style, while Taylor shutdown Dolphins pro bowl receiver Chris Chambers. Money well spent, it seems.

We finally got a good look at the new and improved Willie Parker Thursday night at Heinz Field in the Pittsburgh Steelers regular season opener against the Miami Dolphins.

The Steelers had largely kept Parker under wraps during the preseason, playing him in only three offensive possessions – one fewer than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In fact, Parker got just seven preseason carries as the Steelers protected their new feature back.

Parker did a nice Jerome Bettis impersonation against the Dolphins, pounding out 115 yards on 29 carries, most of which were two and three-yard gains.

Sure, Parker rushed for 1,202 yards last season. But even while doing that, he rarely did any of the heavy lifting, giving way to Jerome Bettis in short-yardage situations and late in games when the Steelers were trying to protect a lead.

But Parker showed much improved patience and decision making Thursday night. He also displayed his trademark speed as well. It's a very dangerous package. Parker had just 25 yards on his first 10 carries against the Dolphins with a long gain of five yards. But the key was that he was ducking his head into the middle of the pile and getting some yards that weren't always there.

He's no power back by any means, but his quickness and decisiveness in his cuts allowed him to make something out of nothing. And he was delivering a blow at the end of his runs, knocking middle linebacker Zach Thomas backward at the end of a few of his runs.

Then, on his 11th carry, we caught a glimpse of that gamebreaking speed that makes Parker special.

Parker took the ball off right tackle and, picking up a block from wide receiver Hines Ward to seal off both a linebacker and corner, broke into the secondary for a 32-yard run that set up the Steelers' second touchdown.

That speed is what sets Parker apart from previous Steelers' running backs.

But his new, more decisive running style is what will make him a star.

Parker has credited Jerome Bettis with his transformation into a more complete running back.

Betits, now retired and working for NBC as an NFL analyst, was at Thursday's game. The teacher had to like what he saw of his best and brightest pupil.

© Does Ricardo Colclough have nekked pictures of Bill Cowher with a llama or something? How else can you explain Cowher putting him back to field a punt after the problems Colclough had fielding punts in training camp?

Colclough looks like Lonnie Smith trying to play center field when he's back there fielding punts.

© Ike Taylor shut Chris Chambers out in the first half, holding him without a catch while shadowing him. In fact, Chambers really didn't get going until late in the game, finishing with five catches for 59 yards.

But on the drive home after the game, I heard more than one radio pundit talk about what a bad game Taylor had.

What the heck were they watching?

Yes, he missed an easy interception in the back of the end zone and Miami scored a touchdown on the following play. And yes, he missed a couple of tackles in run support. But Miami finished with 43 yards rushing.

The bottom line is that Taylor kept Chambers off the board, something Miami couldn't do with Ward.

It's like basketball. You can't expect the guy you've got covering the other team's best player in man-to-man defense to also come down and score 20 points as well. It doesn't work that way. Let him shut down the other team's top gun and be happy if he gets you a basket here or there.

© The offensive line's blocking was spotty, at best, especially in pass blocking. But that was because Miami was mixing things up defensively like New England plays against the Steelers, giving them various looks.

In fact, the Dolphins were defending the Steelers like the Steelers play defense. You saw what that did to Daunte Culpepper, who looked confused for much of the game.

© Special teams play was a problem. You'd hate to think Chidi Iwuoma and Willie Reid would mean that much to this team and that the problems were due to the group not having a lot of playing time together in the preseason.

Then again, you can bet Iwuoma and Reid will be active when the Steelers line up to play Jacksonville.

© Where's the love for Nate Washington now?

© Speaking of love, Joey Porter professed his for Cowher following the game. This after Porter laid a smooch on Cowher following the linebacker's interception return for a touchdown.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

© Antwaan Randle El would have been caught from behind had he been on the receiving end of the pass Heath Miller took 87 yards for a touchdown. Cedrick Wilson didn't catch a pass, while Miller – who actually was the Steelers' second-leading receiver last year – had three catches for 101 yards and Washington had two for 32 and also ran a reverse for eight yards.

I guess they didn't need Randle El as much as everyone thought.

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.

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