Payback's an itch

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Jerome Bettis has already experienced the pain and the payback, but Duce Staley only knows the pain. Payback is due Sunday.

That's when Staley and the Steelers host the Philadelphia Eagles, the team that saw fit to rid itself of Staley earlier this year.

If Staley plays anything like Bettis, when he paid back the St. Louis Rams in 1996, Staley could have a career day.

"It definitely motivates you," said Bettis, who rushed for 129 yards on only 19 carries against the Rams the year after they traded him.

"It's one of those situations where you can probably play with a little bit more pain, do a little bit more here, a little bit more there. I think it's definitely beneficial."

But Staley doesn't want to hear about paying back his old team.

"Let me stop you right there before we go even further," he told a mob of reporters. "We're just trying to better our record."

To that end, the Steelers are looking to beat the Eagles for a share of the NFL's best record at 7-1. But the better Staley runs, the better the Steelers' chances.

"You know," Staley said, "I just got finished doing a conference call and I was telling (Philadelphia reporters) I never really got a chance to admire their defense because I'm on the opposite side of the ball. Coming here, and being here, being able to watch them, they're pretty tough, pretty fast and aggressive, too."

However, the Eagles are somewhat soft against the run. They allow 4.8 yards per carry, which ranks next-to-last in the NFL. It was a similar story last year. The Eagles prefer defensive ends who run upfield to pressure quarterbacks and linebackers who are better in coverage than they are against the run.

The Steelers, meanwhile, average 4.0 yards per carry, 16th in the league, but are fourth with an average of 147.7 rushing yards per game. Staley's averaging 4.7 yards a pop and has gained 707 yards total. It's by far his best start, eclipsing his 2002 start when he had 507 yards (4.8 avg.) after seven games.

Staley finished with 1,029 yards that season, but it didn't help him get off to a fast start in 2003. Last year, Staley had only 157 yards on 40 carries after seven games. It was the first sign he had fallen out of favor in Philadelphia.

"Unfortunately, his role was cut down because of the talent at the running back position," said Sean Morey, who played with the Eagles before coming to the Steelers this year.

"As a teammate, it sort of frustrated me a little bit because I knew how good Duce was. Then again, how do you keep Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter off the field?"

Injuries have done that this year. Although Westbrook may return soon, the Eagles would certainly be more imposing with Staley in their backfield. Last week, they were forced to use scrapheap pick-up Dorsey Levens.

"Anybody in this league would be better off if they had a guy like Duce Staley," Morey said. "He's just so physical. He moves the chains."

Because of young runners such as Westbrook and Buckhalter, the Eagles opted not to pursue Staley after his contract expired last March. However, those close to the situation say it wasn't a matter of taste, but a matter of expenses in Philadelphia.

"It was a business thing," said Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder. "The people in this organization are all rooting for him. Well, I can't speak for everybody, but just about everyone wants to see him succeed. It helps that he's in the AFC. Everyone asks about him. People love him. I love him. I check his stats first."

"We made an effort," said Eagles coach Andy Reid. "It wasn't what Duce was going to make in Pittsburgh. This was a perfect situation for Duce, to come to Pittsburgh. It was starter's money and it was an opportunity to carry the football a lot. More power to him."

Staley signed a five-year, $14 million contract with a $4 million bonus after coach Bill Cowher assured him the Steelers were returning to their run-oriented ways, and that he would be the workhorse. Now, it's the Eagles' turn to pay the price, although Staley said he's not taking that perspective.

"No hard feelings," he said. "It was nothing personal. I think if it's something personal I think I show my teammates I would rather be over there instead of being here. So if I go out with an attitude, or go out like I've got something against those guys over there, they'd look at it like 'Oh, Duce wishes he was still over there.' That's not the case."

Steel City Insider Top Stories