What a difference a year makes

The Steelers' running game -- or more specifically their running backs -- have come a long way since the coaching sessions of 2002. <br><br> That's when an overweight Jerome Bettis trudged around the practice field in a plastic sweat suit next to an underweight Amos Zereoue, who was months away from full health because of a liver problem.

Both players struggled to get into shape during the 2002 preseason and neither fulfilled his potential during the season.

Bettis rushed for only 666 yards. Zereoue had a career-high 762 yards rushing, but it was the lowest total to lead the team in 11 years.

Now, a little more than one year later, the backs barely resemble those remarks.

"It was a totally different feeling at this point," said Bettis. "I'm way ahead."

"Jerome looks good. It looks like he's ready to go," said Zereoue. "I'm ready to go. Fu (Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala) is ready to go. Everybody's ready to go. It's just a matter of going out there and competing."

The training-camp competition is bound to be heated, and therefore bring out the best in the Steelers' running backs this season.

"Oh, most definitely and I think you have to go into a situation like that," Zereoue said. "It'll bring out the best in everyone. You'll definitely see the talent each individual has. When it's like that it definitely makes the team better."

Coach Bill Cowher didn't lessen the looming competition by naming a starter. When asked at minicamp this week which back was first team, Cowher hedged.

"I don't know if I have any preconceived thoughts going in," he said. "I think again it's going to be a case of who's playing the best."

Sounds like a promotion of sorts for Zereoue. Last season, his fourth with the Steelers, Zereoue took advantage of Bettis' injuries to start five regular-season games and two playoff games. In the process, the 5-foot-8 Zereoue proved he could take the pounding that comes with the starting job. In back-to-back starts against Cleveland and Atlanta, Zereoue carried 29 and 37 times. He also had 26 carries in the finale against Baltimore.

For the first time in Zereoue's career, he'll go to training camp with a chance to win the job.

"I don't think about that," he said. "I just try to approach every practice and every coaching session like it's an opportunity for me. As long as I look at it that way, I think everything else will take care of itself."

While Zereoue is buoyed by the opportunity, Bettis is nonchalant.

"Nah. I'm not worried about it," Bettis said. "As long as I'm healthy, I'm not worried about it. Trust me."

Bettis' words were accentuated with a steely gaze. His mouth may have said one thing, but his determination was evident in those eyes, if not the flat stomach.

"I'm about 100 percent, maybe 95 percent," he said. "You're never 100 percent until you actually get to training camp and get some pads on and take that first hit and declare yourself 100 percent."

Bettis appears to be in his best shape since the 2001 season. With three months left in the offseason, Bettis may even be on course to be in the best shape of his life.

"No, no, no, no," he said. "When you get older you're not in the best shape of your life. When you're younger you're in the best shape of your life. But I'm in pretty good shape."

And so, it would appear, is the Steelers' running game.

Jim Wexell

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