Grumbling over playcalling heats up

With fierce defense, battered QB, and young run blockers on the offensive line, Willie Parker wonders why the team's not playing "Steelers football."

A Monday night win at the home of an elite NFC East team has thrust the Steelers back into the limelight.

They're 6-2 and once again being hailed as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

All's well, sayeth the national media, who joke that there's a semblance of a quarterback controversy brewing. After all, backup Byron Leftwich entered the game and got rid of the dang thing. The guy's decisive and understands how to check down and the Steelers might want to consider making him their quarterback even when the bruised and battered Ben Roethlisberger isn't so bruised and battered.

Of course, it's just a minor controversy to pass the time. It's not a legitimate debate. But this is: the offensive playcalling is putting everything at risk.

"It's going to change," growled one assistant defensive coach. "It HAS to change."

"It drives us crazy on the sideline," said one defensive player. "Willie gains eight yards on first down and then we start throwing. No one understands it."

Of course, that's the defensive perspective. On offense, Hines Ward has always said what's needed to be said, even in the face of public ridicule. But this rarity of a wide receiver, one who'd rather run first and pass second, would not question the pass-first, run-second philosophy seemingly embraced by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

"I don't know. We're winning and that's the bottom line," Ward said early Tuesday morning from the winning locker room at Fedex Field. "We're just trying to figure out what we can do to move the ball. We've gone back and forth, couldn't get anything going early, but in the second, third quarter we started making plays.

"Can it work? We're 6-2 right now and that's the bottom line in this business."

Of course, Ward said this as ESPN and NFL Network cameras rolled two feet from his face. I countered to Ward that he didn't sound or look convinced about his answer.

"I don't know. I'm happy to be 6-2," he said.

Another key offensive player had no cameras in his face, so perhaps that emboldened Willie Parker to speak openly.

Parker returned from a four-game absence due to a knee sprain and carried 21 times for 70 yards, which isn't really a light workload for a player who admitted he's still not 100 percent healthy. But Parker can see that this offense has no intention of returning to the run-first days of Ken Whisenhunt and, really, all but one or two of the coordinators who'd come before him.

"We need to get back to Steelers football," Parker said far from the celebratory inquisitions of the celebratory national media. "I'm going to have a talk with some people."

Parker would love to get back to the days of running consistently behind a fullback. He did so four times prior to his goal-line 1-yard touchdown run, and on those four carries he'd compiled 20 yards. Carey Davis, in fact, wiped out strong safety Chris Horton on a Chris Kemoeatu counter power pull right and Parker ripped off a 13-yard run late in the first quarter, his longest of the game. But Davis was yanked and didn't return to lead block for Parker until the first play of the third quarter, when he stuffed London Fletcher in the hole as Parker scampered for six yards.

Of course, the lead play doesn't work all of the time. Late in the game, while protecting a 23-6 lead, Davis led Parker on carries of 1, 1, and 0 yards. But that's to be predicted in such situations, and that's how Arians will counter this argument, that a fullback leading a succession of Steelers running backs through the hole becomes too predictable.

Yet, the defense will counter that argument with its brutally precise play. It's the No. 1 defense in the league and should be complemented by an offense that's not intent on risking the health of its quarterback with one risky playcall after another. It must also be mentioned that a consistent run game would better serve a young group of offensive linemen who are much more comfortable driving men off the line than backing up and hoping not to get beat.

Make no mistake, this 6-2 Super Bowl contending offense is off kilter and the grumbling is becoming louder. At least there's one player who doesn't mind stirring the drink, even when the bulk of the populace has turned its lonely eyes to the decisiveness of a backup quarterback.

"I want to sit down with B.A. and Coach Tomlin and talk about this," Fast Willie Parker said, "because when I'm all the way back, I expect to get the ball. I'm a running back. I want to run the ball. We've got to get back to Steelers football."


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