A look at the running backs

This will be it for Jerome Bettis. His last hurrah. His swann song. <br><br> And regardless of what Steelers head coach Bill Cowher says about Bettis getting a shot at winning the starting running back job in training camp, it's not going to happen.

Last season, Cowher gave lip service to having an open battle for the running back position, but handed the job to Amos Zereoue - who had been injured for most of the first couple of weeks of training camp - based on a "gut feeling."

Zereoue wasn't a better every-down runner than Bettis. He could excel running against opposing team's nickel and dime defenses, but was not the kind of back who could run against a defense expecting the run.

So Zereoue is gone after being replaced by Bettis early in the 2003 season, while Bettis is set to battle a new challenger to his throne in Duce Staley. And this battle will be a TKO in favor of the newcomer.

Bettis was brought back at a reduced salary this season because he showed last season he can still be effective in stretches. But the more than 3,000 NFL carries he's logged in his 11-year career have caught up with him.

So enjoy watching the No. 6 all-time leading runner in NFL history one more season. It will be his last.

Staley is everything Zereoue was supposed to be. Though smaller than Bettis, he's strong and quick into the hole, though he still juke a defender out of his shoes. Staley is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield, giving the Steelers their most prolific pass-catching running back since the team had John L. Williams in the mid-'90s.

This will be a big season for third-year back Verron Haynes. Haynes has seen his first two seasons ended early by injuries. But the Steelers feel he has some promise as a runner and he could push Bettis for carries as the team's No. 2 running back this season. If Haynes proves he can handle the job and make it through the season unscathed, the Steelers may feel they don't need to select a running back early in next year's draft. If not, Haynes could be pushed off the roster.

Another interesting young player on the roster is second-year man Dante Brown, who opened eyes in training camp last year with some big runs.

Brown has what the other Steelers' backs don't possess - speed. But he's going to have to prove he can do more than occasionally break a long run against a third-team defense this year if he wants to earn a roster spot again this season. Brown is going to have to contribute on special teams, either as a return man or on the coverage teams, and show he can catch the ball out of the backfield.

Fullback Dan Kreider has established himself as a solid lead blocker and showed last season he can be a threat as an outlet receiver when he caught nine balls for 107 yards. Kreider isn't an elite fullback, but he's as solid as they come and is a selfless player, which is what the Steelers need at this position.

Pushing Brown for a roster spot this season will be a trio of young players - J.T. Wall, Darryl Kennedy and Willie Parker.

Wall and Kennedy, both fullbacks, could have their worth to the team improved if tight end/fullback Matt Cushing is pushed off the roster by one of the young tight ends the team has brought in. And again, special teams play will be a major factor as the Steelers will see a number of key contributors from last year's unit move into starting roles this season. If any of these young backs show they can cover kicks well - something Kennedy, in particular, showed at Syracuse - it could help win him a roster spot.

Parker didn't play on the coverage units at North Carolina, but was a pretty good kickoff returner. But he's a longshot to unseat Brown.

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