Bettis wants the ball

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> It's no misprint. The Cincinnati Bengals are the No. 1 ranked pass defense in the NFL. <br><br> It says so right here in the stat sheet, but regardless of how it happened, it did, and it gives the Steelers yet another excuse to get their running game untracked. Not that they need an excuse.

"I don't think their stats make a difference either way," said Jerome Bettis. "The bottom line is what we do, and right now we need to run the football more."

"What do you need to run better?" Bettis was asked.

"The ball," he said.

If there's one team against whom Bettis can make demands, it's the Bengals. According to statistics, they are far and away his favorite opponent.

In 14 career games against the Bengals, Bettis has rushed for 1,466 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. His next favorite would be Jacksonville. In 13 games against the Jaguars, Bettis has 940 yards and three touchdowns.

He's played against only one other team as often as the Bengals, but in 14 games against Tennessee, Bettis has gained a mere 744 yards.

No, it's the Bengals for Bettis.

"We've been able to really pound the ball at them," he said. "I don't have any particular reason."

Now for the tough question. Has Bettis, now a back-up to Amos Zereoue, told Coach Bill Cowher of his desire for "the ball"?

"Nope. That's not my job to do," Bettis said. "That's never been in my nature to do something like that."

Is he frustrated?

"Nah. I'm not," Bettis said, before repeating himself. "I'm not. Just got to take it; got to keep going. Hopefully they'll understand that we've got to run the football. I think they see that though."

Certainly the statistics back him up. In two games, the Steelers have gained only 158 yards on 49 carries (3.2 average). Bettis has carried only eight times for 21 yards behind Zereoue's 104 yards on 26 carries.

The stats are similar to the first two games of last season, when the Steelers gained 146 yards on 42 carries (3.5 avg.), but the circumstances surrounding this year's games would seem to favor the running game by a wider margin.

Last year, neither Bettis nor Zereoue were in as good condition as they are now. Bettis was overweight and coming off a severe groin injury. Zereoue was underweight and still feeling the effects of a liver disorder from the previous spring.

Also last year, the Steelers broke in a rookie lineman, Kendall Simmons, at right guard. This year, the only newcomer is veteran journeyman Todd Fordham at right tackle.

Last year, the Steelers fell behind their two opponents early on the way to losses by a cumulative score of 60-31. This year, the Steelers are 1-1 with a cumulative deficit of only 56-54. Closer games, of course, provide better opportunity to run the ball.

There's also the increased threat of a passing game this year, which should open up the running lanes. But there's been no such luck for a traditionally strong rushing attack that's running the ball as poorly as it did in last season's post-season.

In two playoff games last January, the Steelers gained 156 yards on 40 carries (3.9 avg.). Aside from the first two games that was the team's poorest two-game rushing output of the 2002 season. Even in back-to-back games against Tampa Bay and Carolina, the Nos. 1 and 2 defenses in the NFL last season, the Steelers gained 223 yards on 73 carries.

So in the last four games that mattered, the Steelers have rushed for 314 yards on 89 carries for averages of 79 per game and 3.5 per carry.

The common denominator in those four games was a parked Bettis. In that time, he's rushed for 25 yards on 12 carries in a back-up role, and he's feeling healthier than he's felt since that day late in the 2001 season when he left a game with that groin injury while leading the NFL in rushing.

Bettis would love nothing better than another crack at the Bengals. They're his team, and the arguments can be made in his favor. Any chance of a lineup change?

"Only time will tell. We'll see," said a hopeful Bettis. "No sense in speculating. We'll see come game time."

By Jim Wexell

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