Parker must prove leg has healed; Mendenhall makes debut
Friday, August 08, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Willie Parker, tired of questions about the leg he injured last season, gets chance to answer them all tonight.

Perhaps Willie Parker tonight can answer a question without moving his lips. It takes practice, and he certainly has had plenty of that through the spring and the first two weeks of training camp.

Despite all that work, the same old query kept coming.

"Every day, man," Parker said before he and his Steelers teammates open their preseason schedule against the Philadelphia Eagles at 7:30 p.m. today at Heinz Field. "I keep talking about this leg. I'm tired about talking about this leg."

The fibula in that leg, the right one, was broken Dec. 20 on some poor turf in St. Louis. It came in the 15th game of the season, on his first carry, his 321st of the season. It would be the last weekend he led the NFL in rushing.

He has looked every bit like the old Fast Willie in training camp, but he finally gets a chance to show the home audience that he has healed sufficiently. He may not get much of a chance, though, because neither he nor the first-team offense will play much, a long-standing NFL tradition in the first preseason game.

And then will come the next most popular question about Parker: How will he and rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall be used?

It's not common to have two such pedigrees in the same backfield because teams normally don't draft a back in the first round if they already have one who has rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of the past three seasons, set a Super Bowl record and made the past two Pro Bowls.

"Yeah, but when you come off an injury, things kind of change," Parker said. "You have to come and show a lot of people you were the same back you were before you got injured. That's my mindset."

Kirby Wilson, who coaches the running backs, called Parker about the situation in April when it appeared they might draft a runner on the first round.

"Out of respect to our Pro Bowl player, I communicated with him very early on to let him know, No. 1 we appreciate him and No. 2 you'll always draft the best player who fits your team, and that's what we did and we're happy that we did it."

Parker did not have to prove anything last summer. He did not play in the first two preseason games because of minor swelling in his left knee. He ran 10 times in the third game and caught three passes, then exited the final preseason game after one play and no carries.

Tonight, he will step into a game with Mendenhall for the first time as the coaches develop a plan how to use them. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians suggested he might use both in a pony backfield on occasion, but it's more likely when one's in the game the other will be on the sideline.

"We haven't really practiced it," Parker said of the pony, "but I think we'll see a lot of it this year. It'll make it interesting, especially on the pass plays."

The presence of Mendenhall may free Parker to do other things, such as play on third downs, something he wants to do. He also wants to carry on the goal line.

"You're talking about a guy who's very capable in all areas," Wilson said.

"He'll get his opportunities and then, when the time comes, the coaching staff will sit back and say what's best for our offense."

Mendenhall did not perform well on four of his five tries in the goal-line drill the past week, although he scored once. While Mike Tomlin noted he had to run harder in those situations, the coach has been mostly complimentary of his rookie.

"It's a natural reaction to the overall intensity of the drill," Tomlin said. "It's something all rookies have to go through.

"Actually, he has been impressive every time we expose him to something new. Friday night will be new and different for him.

"I like his attention to detail. He's a very coachable guy, a good worker, he's a relatively quick learner. All indications of things we focus on have been positive."

So, the Steelers enter a new era tonight with what could be two elite running backs, Fast Willie and Rocket Rashard. How, when and how often each of them plays might not be known for awhile.

"Right now it's too early," Wilson said. "We want to get some games under our belts to see what we have. But we feel real good about it right now.

"That's the beauty of coaching that position, [the backs] generally decide who plays. It's a real good situation."