Will Bettis get the ball?

<b>PITTSBURGH –</b> The last time Jerome Bettis played against the St. Louis Rams, he begged Steelers Coach Bill Cowher to put him back in the lineup. <br><br> Some things never change.

Bettis is hoping desperately to start against the team that traded him -- and spoke badly of him - to the Steelers during the 1996 draft. It ranks as perhaps the greatest personnel move of then-director of operations man Tom Donahoe's career in Pittsburgh when he swapped the Steelers' 1996 second-round draft pick and 1997 fourth-round pick for the Rams' 1996 third-round pick and Bettis, who has since gained 8,579 yards with the Steelers.

Bettis has averaged 79.4 rushing yards per regular-season game with the Steelers, but this season, in a backup role, he's averaging only 21.3 rushing yards per game.

Bettis has gained only 128 yards on 44 carries (2.9 avg.) this season and is in line for his least-productive season since 1995, when he gained 637 yards for the Rams to prompt the trade. The Steelers and Bettis played the Rams in 1996, and Bettis, in the first of back-to-back team MVP seasons, gained 129 yards on 19 carries by the third quarter of a blowout win. Cowher pulled Bettis early and turned down repeated requests by his tailback to return him to the game. This time around, Bettis won't have to beg Cowher. The coach already knows Bettis is chomping at the bit to return to the starting lineup in place of Amos Zereoue, who's gained only 277 yards on 83 carries (3.3 avg.).

"I've been doing what I normally do - practice hard. I've been busting my butt in practice," said Bettis. "Regardless of my situation, I know that when they call my number I've got to be ready and I've tried to do that through the course of the season."

The Steelers have rushed for only 500 yards on 161 carries (3.1 avg.) this season and are on pace for a 16-game franchise low of 1,333 rushing yards. The Steelers' record for fewest rushing yards is 1,092 set in the 14-game 1966 season.

The No. 1 problem with the running game is an offensive line that was short of tackles before an assortment of injuries depleted the talent even further. Cowher has shuffled the line during the bye week and he's also given Bettis more practice time. Bettis was asked if he has any intuition of forthcoming change.

"Well, my intuition got crushed in training camp, so I'm out of that," he said. Does more practice time mean anything? "No," Bettis said. "Not unless they tell you something, and I

haven't been told anything so I can't assume anything. Last time I assumed something I got my feelings hurt."

Bettis is obviously still upset about losing his job to Zereoue in training camp. Bettis reported at 252 pounds and dipped to 249 during camp. He now weighs his preferred 256 and is looking to add to his 11,670 career rushing yards.

Bettis ranks 10th on the NFL's all-time rushing list, 404 yards behind Thurman Thomas, 450 behind Franco Harris, 573 behind Marcus Allen and 642 behind No. 6 Jim Brown. "You can't worry about it," was all Bettis would tell reporters. "You've just got to keep going and make sure you're ready when they call your number."

He'd like nothing better than to return to the lineup against the Rams, even though very few are still with the organization from his time there.

"Isaac Bruce. He's still there," Bettis said. "I think Isaac is the only guy who's still there. (Mike) Martz was the tight ends coach when I was there. Now he's the head coach."

Would Bettis be able to work up a bitter case against his old tight ends coach?

"No, no, no," he said with a laugh. "I can't. It's one of those situations where the old regime is not there anymore. Although you look at the team as the team you used to play for and a team you have ill will towards, there's not a person there that I can look to and say he's the guy. None of them were there. All of them are gone. All you can take is the good memories with you into the game, so there won't any bitterness."


"No question I still want to beat them," he said. "You still want to show the people in that city that a mistake was made, and that they made it and that they co-signed, so you want to make sure they know it was a bad move."

Now he just needs the ball.

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