Bettis gets the call -- if he dares

As expected, Steelers Coach Bill Cowher returned running back Jerome Bettis to the starting lineup Tuesday. <br><br>That is, potentially, the good news.

The bad news is that Bettis will run behind an offensive line that took yet another hit Tuesday, when Cowher announced that back-up tackle Mathias Nkwenti will miss at least the next six weeks with a back injury.

Sources within the organization believed Nkwenti to be in line to start at right tackle in Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams. It would've been the third-year veteran's first career start after making his first career appearance against the Denver Broncos. Nkwenti recently had his back checked and doctors discovered "a disc fragment that's pressing on a nerve in his low back," according to Cowher.

Nkwenti will receive a second opinion before undergoing surgery.

"So, given that news being received this morning, we're in the process of looking at all the options that we have at this point," Cowher said.

Cowher also announced that left tackle Marvel Smith, who practiced last week, is doubtful - "very doubtful" - for Sunday's game because of a lingering problem with a pinched nerve in his neck and left shoulder area.

"He's gotten his strength back," Cowher said. "It's gotten better, but not to the point where he was able to even practice (Monday). We're not putting him out there until he's recovered enough to be able to hit people."

If Smith can't play, the Steelers would once again start All-Pro left guard Alan Faneca at left tackle, as they did against Denver, with third-year veteran Keydrick Vincent again starting at left guard.

Jeff Hartings and Kendall Simmons will remain at center and right guard, respectively, with Todd Fordham moving back to right tackle.

"Oliver (Ross) will back up both tackles and Chukky (Okobi) will back up the three interior guys," Cowher said, "and those are all our healthy bodies."

Also listed as doubtful (again, "very doubtful") is tight end Jay Riemersma, who sprained a medial collateral ligament in his left knee during Monday's practice. If Riemersma can't play, Jerame Tuman would start at tight end.

The run of injuries is part of the explanation Cowher gave for returning Bettis to the starting lineup. Cowher had named Amos Zereoue the new starter prior to the season opener, but he's gained only 277 yards on 83 carries (3.3 avg.) through six starts, a pace that would give Zereoue 739 rushing yards this season.

"I don't know if there was any one thing," Cowher said in one of several attempted explanations. "Like I told Amos, it wasn't really anything he didn't do. I think that just right now, where we are and a little bit of the flux with the offensive line and the status of our running game, that I think the way Jerome's run, it's just more conducive to the power-running style that he has right now."

Bettis hasn't fared any better than Zereoue this season. Bettis has only 128 yards on 44 carries (2.9), although many of his carries have come in short-yardage situations.

During the 2-4 Steelers' current three-game losing streak, Zereoue has gained 105 yards on 41 carries (2.6) and Bettis has gained 48 yards on 20 carries (2.4). The Steelers rank 28th in the NFL in rushing, averaging 83.3 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry.

"This isn't about one guy being put in just to give us a spark," Cowher said. "Jerome's played. I mean, he's played in all the games. I mean, so has Amos played in all the games. So this isn't about one player, this is again, um, about just making a lineup change and right now we've just got to play better as a football team."

Cowher went on to talk about the finer points of team play. When he finished, a reporter asked if the move signaled "a new approach by the offense."

"No. I don't think it signals anything," Cowher said. "I stated that from the beginning. As I stated about a minute ago, this is not about any one player, um, you know, trying to pick up the team or about sending any type of message at all. It's about us just putting in players that at this time that he's it. He's played in all the games, and so he's starting and Amos is going to go back to his role and that's where we are this week and that doesn't mean that it couldn't change, you know, next week. Like I said, both those guys, you talk about positions, this is just like we've done with the offensive line. We're just looking for, you know, a combination and we will continue to do that."

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