Bettis blindsided, Zereoue thankful

Years from now, Amos Zereoue will be the answer to a trivia question: Who replaced Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis as the Steelers' starting running back?<br><br> Zereoue knew the day would come when he would finally take over the reins as the Steelers' main running back. He just didn't figure Bettis would still be around when he finally did it.

But Zereoue doesn't want to be known as the man who sent a legend to the bench.

"A lot of people are going to look at it that way, but not me," the fifth-year running back said. "I think everyone knew that eventually it was going to come to that point, but (Bettis) still has a lot left and we're just going to try to utilize both of us and make this team go."

Head coach Bill Cowher earlier this week named Zereoue the team's starting running back, pushing Bettis, 10th on the NFL's all-time leading rusher list, to the bench. And in Thursday night's 15-14 preseason victory over Dallas at Heinz Field, it was Amos Zereoue getting the bulk of the carries with the first-team offense, while Jerome Bettis stood on the sidelines watching.

Bettis admitted he was surprised by Cowher's decision. He had worked out harder than ever during the offseason after two consecutive injury-plagued seasons. And the two had shared time with the first unit throughout training camp. But Zereoue had been nicked by injuries the past two weeks, forcing him to miss the team's preseason opener at Detroit and several practices in between. Cowher only said the decision to start Zereoue over Bettis was a "gut" feeling by him.

"How do you see it coming when you're competing every day," Bettis said. "It was out of nowhere, but you respect it. I've been on the better side of the majority of gut decisions about me, so one of them went the other way."

To make matters worse, second-year running back Verron Haynes saw the majority of action as the team's third-down back, meaning Bettis could be relegated to getting only a handful of carries per game. It's a tough pill to swallow for a running back who has averaged 287 carries per season since entering the league in 1993.

"A decision was made and you have to live with it," said Bettis, who learned of Cowher's decision Monday evening. "I've had a whole week to think it through and I'm fine now."

Bettis showed he's not going to hang his head after Cowher's decision. Despite playing only one full series and part of another Thursday night, he made it a memorable one. His first carry went for nine yards around left end. One play later, quarterback Tommy Maddox found Plaxico Burress for a 25-yard TD pass. Bettis finished with 18 yards on three carries.

And when the Steelers passed the ball three times in a row, three times Bettis laid punishing blocks on blitzing Cowboys defensive players, including 300-pound defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, whom Bettis put on his back.

"They were blitzing, so you gotta pick it up," said Bettis, who earns a base salary of $2.75 million this season. "It was nothing out of the ordinary. When you get about four or five passes in a row, you've gotta think protection first."

Bettis, who is second in rushing yards in team history behind only Franco Harris, said Cowher gave him no indication of how much playing time he'll get once the regular season begins. And, he added, he has no control over what the coach does, either.

"Whatever they want. I've just got to go out there when my number is called and go to work," Bettis said. "I don't know what's going to transpire, all I know is I'll be ready."

He would not, however, equate this situation with the one that occurred in 1995 in St. Louis, when he was benched by head coach Rich Brooks and subsequently traded to the Steelers the next season.

"Everybody was creating a situation where I was the problem, so I became the scapegoat for a lackluster season as a team overall," Bettis said. "This is nothing like that."

Zereoue, meanwhile, appreciates Cowher's faith in him.

"It's a great opportunity for me because a lot of eyes are going to be on me right now," he said. "But it's nothing new for me because I've been in this situation the past two seasons."

Dale Lolley

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