But the season actually has been a revival for the Bus, whose previous two seasons ended with injuries. He began the season on the bench, demoted only two weeks into the preseason in favor of diminutive Amos Zereoue because of what Coach Bill Cowher called a "gut" decision.
It was a slap in the face to the future Hall of Famer but felt more like a punch in the gut to the Steelers, whose offense backtracked without him. Their once-feared rushing game sunk to an all-time low of a No. 31 ranking in the league. Zereoue, an excellent third-down back and part-time replacement for Bettis, flopped as a starter.
Coupled with that change, Cowher also installed newly-acquired tight end Jay Riemersma as the starter over longtime blocking tight end Mark Bruener, who helped pave the way for Bettis the previous seven years. It was a disaster of monstrous proportions.
The expected lift Riemersma would give the passing game never materialized -- he has only 10 catches and one touchdown -- and without a ground game, quarterback Tommy Maddox and his passing attack suffered as defenses served up a steady diet of cover 2 and dared Pittsburgh to run.
After six games, Cowher said "enough" and reinstalled Bettis as the starter. It took awhile for the running game to take hold but Bettis has 444 yards in the past five games, including both of his 100-yard games.
The man they tried to tuck away in his final season refuses to go quietly. Since Zereoue has failed, they don't have another feature running back on the team. Either they draft one, sign one as a free agent or hand the job back to Bettis for 2004. They also could have Bettis split time with another back, whoever that might be.
Bettis is scheduled to earn nearly $3.8 million in salary next season and if they want him back they will ask him to take a pay cut. He said he would be willing to discuss that with them when they time comes.
"I'll let it work itself out at the end of the season," Bettis said. "We can't do anything about it now but play, and your play is an indication of what you can still do."
Teammate Hines Ward wants him to come back for many reasons.
"The last [several] weeks, he's been running the ball dominantly," Ward said. "When he's in that huddle, all eyes are on Jerome. It starts from Jerome and just filters down to the other guys. He's always been the leader on this team. As far as I'm concerned, this is always his team.
"I think he deserves to retire here. He's what the Pittsburgh Steelers are all about ... I just couldn't imagine seeing Jerome in another uniform."
17th meeting, the Steelers lead the all-time series 12-4, including a 34-15 victory in Pittsburgh to open this season. The Steelers have won the past five games against the Ravens and are unbeaten in Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium at 6-0. Pittsburgh is 2-0 against Baltimore in Sunday night games.
Game Plan and Matchups
The Steelers have had their problems running against Baltimore in the past, so they may try to air it out a little. In a 34-15 victory in the opener against the Ravens, QB Tommy Maddox completed 21 of 29 passes for 260 yards, three TDs, no interceptions. On defense, they will gear up to stop Jamal Lewis because they do not want him to set the NFL rushing record against them.
Matchups to watch:
- Ravens CB Chris McAlister vs. WR nemesis Plaxico Burress.
- RB Jamal Lewis, the NFL's leading rusher, vs. the NFL's 8th-ranked defense vs. the rush.
- TE Todd Heap vs. LB James Farrior or SS Mike Logan.
- Pass-rushing specialist Terrell Suggs, who leads Baltimore with 12.5 sacks, vs. All-Pro Alan Faneca, playing left tackle.
Focus on Lewis
Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, the NFL's leading rusher with 1,952 yards, has never had a 100-yard rushing game against Pittsburgh, including the opener this season when he carried 15 times for 69 yards. He can become the fourth back in NFL history to run for 2,000 yards. He needs 154 to break Eric Dickerson's 1984 record of 2,105 yards with the Rams.
"The best way to take Jamal Lewis out of the game is to get a lead where the option to run is not an option because of the clock," Cowher said. "If they get a lead and he starts to pound, he gets stronger as the game goes on."
Approaching No. 2 spot
Tommy Maddox, whose passer rating of 134.3 against Baltimore in the opener was the best of his career, needs 34 passing yards to pass Terry Bradshaw for the second-most yards passing by a Steeler in a season. He has 3,306 yards. Bradshaw holds the first two places with 3,724 yards in 1979 and 3,339 in 1980. In his past eight games, Maddox has thrown 11 TD passes and only 3 interceptions. He has the most attempts (492) and the most completions (284) of any Steeler in one season.
The Steelers placed offensive tackle Marvel Smith on injured reserve and signed cornerback B.J. Tucker from their practice squad to their 53-man roster. Smith has a pinched nerve in his neck and played only six games, none of the past three. Tucker played at Wisconsin and was drafted in the sixth round by Dallas and was on Oakland's practice squad for a while. The Steelers signed him to their practice squad Dec. 2.
Rooney says the service stunk
Dan Rooney wants the NFL to take charge of its fields so snow cannot mar a game the way it did Dec. 14 between the Steelers and Jets in Giants Stadium.
"When we played in New York, they didn't have anybody there to do the job," Rooney said. "We'll call up hundreds of kids to come out, shovel and do [cleanup work at Heinz Field]. We have all the equipment. They only had one truck, it was really bad, one plow."
Rooney said Giants Stadium personnel were unprepared to clear the snow even though the storm was forecast days before it hit. The Steelers lost to the Jets, 6-0.
"I think it was a disservice to the fans. No. 1, we had white jerseys on and they had white pants and you blended right in with the snow, it was hard to see - mainly for the TV audience."
- The Steelers avoided a losing record in Heinz Field for the first time by winning their final two home games to go 4-4.
- TE Mark Bruener, a starter since 1995, likely will play in his last game Sunday with the Steelers. He took a pay cut from $2 million to $800,000 and was demoted to third team. He's caught two passes this season.
"I'm not going to discuss the season until the season's over," Bruener said.
- LB James Farrior has a comfortable lead as the team's leading tackler with 188, 100 of them solo.
- RB Amos Zereoue, who opened the season as the starter, has not had more than 32 yards rushing in the past 10 games. It's possible they will not bring him back next season.
- SS Brent Alexander has a broken finger in his hand and is questionable for Sunday's game in Baltimore. If he cannot play, second-year man Chris Hope will make his first pro starter.
- Four other players are probable: RB Jerome Bettis (knee), WR Hines Ward (abdominal strain), RB Amos Zereoue (bruised thigh) and C Chukky Okobi (back).
Quote to Note "To see him back in the huddle and going out there and running the way he's running right now, it's exciting, I'm glad to be a part of it." - WR Hines Ward on RB Jerome Bettis.