The Pittsburgh Steelers decided to bring an undrafted free agent running back from Tobacco Road into the fold in 2004. It did not seem like much at the time signing Willie Parker as an undrafted free agent, but in Super Bowl XL, his 75-yard gallop for a touchdown was the key play in securing the Steelers drive for five Super Bowl rings. In 2022, the Steelers have gone back to the 12 mile stretch of highway between the Universities of North Carolina and Duke and have brought in Mataeo Durant to compete for the primary backup role to an established running back.
Parker broke out after slowly rising up the depth chart in 2004. In the final game of that season against the Buffalo Bills, he delivered 19 rushes for 102 yards. In one season, he passed Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley and Verron Haynes on the depth chart and became the Steelers lead back in 2005. Bettis was a Hall of Famer at the end of his career and Staley was a high quality running back for several years in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and Steelers. Parker had a spectacular but short run as the Steelers primary ball carrier, and the black and gold are hoping that history repeats itself.
Durant ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at his Pro Day which is a full one tenth of a second slower than Parker put up in 2004. However, anything sub 4.4 in the forty-yard dash is impressive. The Steelers are not seeking a lead back for the future. They are looking for a quality back who can provide a change of pace for Najee Harris who is entering his second year in the NFL. Harris carried a heavy burden in 2021 with no other back on the roster exceeding 36 carries for the season. That statistic itself is a little misleading as if you combine his three backups, they managed 51 out of a possible 358 carries. Harris carried the ball 86% of the time which is not viable in today’s NFL for a running back long-term.
Durant’s career at Duke was much more successful at the collegiate level than Parker’s at North Carolina. Durant rushed for over 2,500 yards for the Blue Devils. He caught 27 passes during his senior season. Durant is not the receiver that Harris is, but compared to the primary backup from last season, Benny Snell Jr., he is much more comfortable catching passes out of the backfield. Durant would provide a key upgrade in the RPO game for Matt Canada, a play-action to Durant that results in a safety valve flare is a real threat and should keep at least one linebacker alert to the possibility of him sneaking out into the flat. If it slows down the opponents pass rush while giving Harris a break, it will be a huge upgrade for a retooled offensive line.
Durant was the more successful collegiate running back, but like Parker, he will face the same challenges as an undrafted free agent for the Steelers. His task is arguably more difficult, because while Parker had to leap more quality running backs to secure the starting role in his second season. He did not have a back like Harris standing in his way. It is unlikely that no matter how great he performs the tasks set for him that he can replace a unicorn like Harris, but he does not have to replace him. If Durant can give the Steelers replacement level production so that the wear and tear on their primary ball carrier does not burn him out after three or four seasons, it will make the team and the running back room productive for years to come. Durant does not have to be Fast Willie to find his way into Steelers history. If he can become Motoring Mataeo and follow in Parker’s footsteps off of Tobacco Road, the Steelers will have harvested a banner Carolina crop for the second time in the 21st century.