The Steelers looking for new wheels for the Bus

While the real position battles won't begin until the Steelers head for St. Vincent College in Latrobe in a little under two months, the team's mini-camp at the beginning of June will offer a sneak preview of several key battles. <br><br> Here is the first in a series previewing those: <br><br> <b>Today: Running Back</b>

The Steelers are hoping to see a lot less of Jerome Bettis when mini-camp opens up. But even a slimmer and trimmer Bettis will be asked to take a more complimentary role for the team this year than the lead role he had in previous seasons.

With Bettis nursing a knee injury for a large portion of last season, Amos Zereoue emerged as the team's starting running back. And given that the team figures to run a pass-oriented offense similar to the one it changed to when Tommy Maddox became the team's starting quarterback early last season, it would seem Zereoue is the better fit to see more playing time.

That will leave the team looking for ways to utilize Bettis, who should come to camp with something to prove. A proud man, Bettis is going to want to go out on his own terms, not released in a cost-cutting move. That should have been enough motivation for him to get into that 250-pound range at which he has been so effective in the past. The obvious way to use Bettis is as a short-yardage back and late in games when they're looking to run out the clock. With his $2.75-million base salary this season, he will be an expensive toy for Mike Mularkey to use, but they knew this could happen when they signed him to a contract extension two years ago.

The true odd man out in this year's running back mix could be Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. With fullback Dan Kreider scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the 2003 season, the team will give seventh-round draft pick J.T. Wall every opportunity to make the roster as a backup this season as insurance.

And it's doubtful the team will want to carry six running backs this season, especially considering the total cost of those six players would carry a cap cost of over $7 million. Zereoue is the best receiving running back on the team and will be used in most third-down packages. And with a presumably healthy Bettis there to spell Zereoue, there is no need to keep a China doll like Fuamatu-Ma'afala or his base salary of $700,000 around. If Verron Haynes shows he's capable of being a fill-in as the team's third down back - something he failed at last season - he could push Fuamatu-Ma'afala off the roster.

Dale Lolley

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