Parker: Any help welcome

PITTSBURGH – He's on pace for the third best season in Steelers history, yet Willie Parker hears the whispers that the team needs another runner, someone to lessen the load. And he agrees.

"I think that'd be great," said Parker, who's returning to his home state of North Carolina this week to play the Carolina Panthers.

"Another back? A one-two punch? I think that would be great. And the way we run the ball, and the way we want to run the ball, I think that would be just a great decision. … Me and Jerome, we did a phenomenal job last year and I thought that was how it was going to be this year, but it didn't go that way."

Parker and Jerome Bettis combined for 1,570 yards rushing last season, or only 94 more than Parker's projected total of 1,476 this season.

The difference is that Parker didn't have to carry most of the load last year. Last year, Parker gained 54 percent of the team's rushing yardage on 46 percent of the carries. This year he's gained 77 percent of the yardage on 72 percent of the carries.

He wanted the ball and he's getting it, and he isn't showing any signs of wearing down. In his last game Parker set a team record with 223 rushing yards on a career-high 32 carries. He dedicated the game to Bettis, whose father had been buried three days prior to the game. Parker called Bettis before and after playing Cleveland.

"He hasn't hit me back, though," Parker said. "I know how that is, going through something like that. When somebody passes away and you don't really want to talk to anybody, you're kind of in a shell. So, yeah, before the game, after the game, I've been trying to reach out to him."

Parker said he misses Bettis, but that "it was real important for me to get away from him a little bit and do things on my own, just to show people I can make decisions on my own."

And so with 1,199 yards (4.5 avg.) after 13 games, Parker enjoys a Pro Bowl-caliber season. That's what Hines Ward called it.

"He's got my vote," said Ward. "I'm a huge Willie Parker fan."

But there are the whispers, which turned into a roar recently when the Steelers averaged 2.8 yards per carry through three games. Last week's game quieted the critics … for now.

"People kept saying he's too little and this and this, but the guy got over a thousand yards for the Pittsburgh Steelers," Ward said. "Any running back here, who's had over a thousand yards, everybody praises and loves him. But it seems like people keep doubting his skills, that he can be a legitimate running back."

Is Parker worthy of the Pro Bowl? He's currently third in the AFC in rushing behind Larry Johnson (1,432/4.3) and LaDainian Tomlinson (1,427/5.0). Those are the backs who drew Parker's vote. The third back should either be Parker or No. 4 rusher Fred Taylor (1,083/4.9), who could be the sentimental choice because he's never played in the Pro Bowl. Parker said it doesn't matter to him.

"The thing about it, the Pro Bowl's not a team award so I kind of stay away from all that talk about the Pro Bowl," he said. "A lot of people ask me in the street about the Pro Bowl but I go back to the team. That's an individual accolade and will take care of itself. I'm more of a team person, more about how my teammates are involved with everything I do. If that does happen, I've got to give a lot of my credit to my teammates."

And so the Fast Willie For Pro Bowl Tour rolls into his home state of North Carolina. Parker never was a fan of the fledgling Panthers growing up, but he's had to score plenty of tickets anyway.

"It's going to be a great game for me, a homecoming," he said. "A lot of my family and a lot of my friends are going to be there. It's going to be great for me."

NOTES -- WR Hines Ward (knee) and FS Ryan Clark (groin) were upgraded to probable from Bill Cowher's earlier pronouncement of "questionable" at his Monday press conference. Safeties Troy Polamalu (knee) and Mike Logan (hamstring), and WR Cedrick Wilson (ankle) remain doubtful for Sunday's game. Logan, Polamalu and Wilson missed Wednesday's practice.

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