November 12, 2011

2006: Parker Runs for 213 Yards as Steelers Beat Brees & Saints

The Week 10 matchup on November 12, 2006 at Heinz Field featured two teams whose fortunes were moving in opposite directions from the prior season. The Pittsburgh Steelers, coached by Bill Cowher, were the defending league champions, but had thus far compiled a less-than-august 2-6 record. QB Ben Roethlisberger, who played so well in his first two years, suffered both an offseason motorcycle accident and appendectomy and was now more tentative and mistake-prone. The offensive line was having difficulty with both run blocking and pass protection, but the defense was still sound. Fundamentally, the Steelers still had the key players in place from the Super Bowl-winning club of 2005, but had yet to play up to their potential in ‘06.

The New Orleans Saints had suffered through a dismal 2005. Following the devastation of the Crescent City by Hurricane Katrina just prior to the start of the season, rendering the Louisiana Superdome in need of significant repair, the Saints were forced to play the entire schedule on the road. The result was a 3-13 disaster. In the offseason, they gained a new head coach in Sean Payton and a new quarterback in free agent Drew Brees, previously of the Chargers. A rejuvenated franchise back in its refurbished home stadium, New Orleans won the first three games of the ’06 season to equal its total of the year before and was 6-2 and the talk of the NFL coming into Pittsburgh.

The Steelers struck first, having been galvanized by an emotional team meeting prior to the game in which several veterans spoke up. Following a 40-yard opening kickoff return by RB Najeh Davenport, they took six plays to reach the end zone as Roethlisberger connected with WR Hines Ward for a 37-yard touchdown. Two plays into the following possession, Brees completed a pass to TE Billy Miller, who fumbled when hit by LB James Farrior. DE Brett Keisel recovered for the Steelers, giving them possession at the New Orleans 29.

Pittsburgh made the most of the opportunity. With RB Willie Parker (pictured above) running and Roethlisberger completing a pair of short passes, the Steelers advanced to the two yard line, and from there the quarterback known as “Big Ben” threw to TE Heath Miller for a TD and 14-0 lead.

The Saints came back with a long drive that covered 52 yards in 12 plays, following a 43-yard kickoff return by WR Michael Lewis. New Orleans converted four third downs along the way, including one on a 22-yard pass play from Brees to WR Terrance Copper in a third-and-11 situation, and another pass to Copper for a three-yard touchdown on a third-and-goal play. The score was 14-7 after one quarter.

Following a Pittsburgh punt, the Saints put together another 12-play scoring drive, this one covering 78 yards. Brees completed a 27-yard pass to WR Marques Colston along the way, and the same combination came together to convert a fourth-and-two situation at the Steelers’ 26 with a 10-yard gain. John Carney booted a 20-yard field goal to finish off the possession and Pittsburgh’s lead was cut to 14-10.

After another short possession by the Steelers, the Saints drove 71 yards in eight plays. Brees passed to Colston for a 28-yard gain on a third-and-ten play that moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 32. A 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty set up a 15-yard touchdown run by RB Reggie Bush, after taking a handoff from Colston on a double reverse.

It was now 17-14 in favor of New Orleans with 2:22 on the clock in the first half. Passing out of the shotgun formation, Roethlisberger completed three passes, including one to WR Santonio Holmes that gained 46 yards to the Saints’ 13. Jeff Reed kicked a 32-yard field goal and the score was tied at 17-17.

There was still time remaining, and now it was Brees firing out of the shotgun formation with two completions for 33 yards to get into Pittsburgh territory at the 39. A long pass to Colston gained 29 yards, and RB Deuce McAllister ran for a four-yard TD on a broken play that put the Saints back ahead at 24-17 at halftime.

New Orleans had the first possession of the second half and punted, giving the Steelers the ball at their own nine yard line. They put together a good drive, with Parker running three times for 26 yards and catching two passes. Roethlisberger completed a pass down the middle to WR Nate Washington that gained 22 yards on a third-and-ten play and had another 22-yard throw to Miller. However, after the drive stalled at the New Orleans 18, Reed was wide on a 35-yard field goal attempt.

The Steelers got the ball back quickly. On the Saints’ second play, Bush fumbled and FS Ryan Clark recovered for Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger wasted no time as he immediately went to the air and tossed a 38-yard touchdown pass to WR Cedrick Wilson. With the extra point, the game was once again tied at 24-24.

Brees came out throwing when the Saints regained possession. After McAllister ran for three yards, the quarterback threw to Bush for 13 yards and then to Copper for 32. But after advancing to the Pittsburgh 14, Carney missed from 32 yards out on a field goal attempt and the score remained knotted.

Roethlisberger was sacked on Pittsburgh’s next play, but the Steelers got all that back and much more when Parker burst through the line for a 72-yard gain to the New Orleans 14. Parker started the fourth quarter off with a three-yard touchdown run, and Pittsburgh was back in front by 31-24.

The Saints again made it into Steelers territory on their next possession, but punted into the end zone after reaching the 39. On Pittsburgh’s second play, it was Parker making another big run as he carried the ball around right end, this time for a 76-yard gain to the New Orleans four. The third-year running back ran it in for a TD from there on the next play, and it was a 38-24 game.

With almost ten minutes to play, the Saints were far from done. Brees threw to RB Aaron Stecker for 48 yards and followed up by connecting with Colston for 13 more to the Pittsburgh eight yard line. McAllister ran for another four-yard touchdown and it was again a one-touchdown game.

The Steelers crossed midfield and had to punt on their next possession. Starting at their 19, the Saints moved methodically down the field as Brees completed short passes. They converted two third downs, but Copper fumbled the ball away after gaining 20 yards to the Pittsburgh 25 in a third-and-ten situation with under a minute remaining on the clock, and the Steelers held on for a 38-31 win.

Pittsburgh was weakened in the defensive backfield during the course of the game due to concussions suffered by star SS Troy Polamalu and CB Deshea Townsend and the Saints had more total yards (513 to 467) and first downs (29 to 19). However, New Orleans suffered three costly turnovers, to none by the Steelers.

Willie Parker was the star of the game as he rushed for 213 yards on 22 carries that included the two touchdowns set up by his long runs. Ben Roethlisberger completed 17 of 28 passes for 264 yards with three TDs and none intercepted. Hines Ward was the leading receiver with 5 catches for 86 yards and a score.

Drew Brees had another productive passing game as he went to the air 47 times and completed 31 for 398 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Marques Colston (pictured at right) caught 10 passes for 169 yards and Terrance Copper added 92 yards on his 6 receptions that included a TD. Deuce McAllister led the running game with 49 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown and Reggie Bush contributed 10 attempts for 49 yards and a TD on the ground and 7 catches for 40 yards as a receiver out of the backfield.

“We had three turnovers, and that can't happen,” Drew Brees said in summing up afterward. “The defense gave up a couple of big plays. That can't happen. Special teams gave them good field position. That can't happen. If eliminate one of those, we should have been able to fight back.”

It was a big win for the Steelers and turned around their season – they won five of their last seven games, and while it was too much ground to make up to have a shot at making the playoffs and defending their title, they finished at a respectable 8-8 for third place in the AFC North. New Orleans lost again the next week to the Bengals but went on to win the NFC South with a 10-6 record and advanced to the NFC Championship game before succumbing to the Bears.

Willie Parker gained a career-high 1494 yards rushing on 337 carries with 13 touchdowns. He also scored three times as part of his 31 pass receptions and his 16 TDs overall tied for third in the NFL. Parker was named to the Pro Bowl.

Ben Roethlisberger led the league by throwing 23 interceptions and was also sacked 46 times. Still, he ranked seventh in the NFL by throwing for 3513 yards and averaging 7.5 yards per attempt and fourth with 12.5 yards per completion. Drew Brees (pictured below) had a big year, leading the league in passing yards (4418) and ranking third with 26 touchdown passes, a passer rating of 96.2, and 8.0 yards per attempt.