Steelers ready to rumble

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> It's late November and the annual series of turkey bowls has left the Heinz Field surface one NFL quarter away from a mud bath.

Advantage Steelers (9-1). They have Duce Staley coming back; they have Jerome Bettis at the ready; they even have the mudder coach Bill Cowher found in the Miami hurricane, Verron Haynes, in good health and ready to rumble, bumble and stumble through the Washington Redskins (3-7) today.

Staley, in fact, felt so good this week he said he and Bettis formed "the best 1-2 punch in the league."

But while the Steelers are first in the NFL with a 161.7-yard per rush average, they really haven't benefited from both of their running backs being at optimum efficiency at the same time. But as Staley warned, "as soon as I can get healthy, and get back out there, we can continue to terrorize defenses.'

Staley averaged 101 yards in his seven games before a New England Patriot punched him in the back of his hamstring, sending him out for three weeks. In the interim, Bettis ran like it was 2001 all over again. He averaged 127 yards in his three games.

It's the kind of 1-2 punch for which the Steelers have become famous under Cowher, but this tandem is actually different than any Cowher's had.

Certainly, stories in the coming six weeks, as the Steelers rumble down the stretch, will point this out, but here are the facts once again:
  • In 1994, the Steelers led the league in rushing behind Barry Foster (5-10, 223) and rookie Bam Morris (6-0, 244). Foster gained 851 yards (3.9 avg.) in his last NFL season and Morris gained 836 (4.2) in his first. Foster missed games 13 and 14 with an injury and was hobbled in the playoffs. Morris sprained an ankle in the final game of the season. The two combined for 49 yards on 22 carries in the loss to San Diego in the title game.

  • In 1996, the Steelers were second in the league in rushing. Bettis, in his first year with the team, suffered an ankle injury and had 9 carries in the final two regular-season games. His back-up, Erric Pegram (5-10, 195), was injured in Game 15 after gaining 509 yards (5.2) and never played with the Steelers again. Bettis rushed for 1,431 yards but came back to injure his groin in the first round of the playoffs and struggled in the Fog Bowl at New England.

  • In 1997, the Steelers led the league in rushing and it was all Bettis. He rushed for a career-high 1,665 yards but had no help from scatback-type back-ups George Jones and Freddie McAfee.

  • In 2001, the Steelers led the league in rushing but Bettis injured his groin in Game 11 and didn't play again until the AFC title game, when he gained only 8 yards on 9 carries. His back-ups were Amos Zereoue (5-8, 205) and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (6-0, 254), who were small and injured, respectively.

The only season under Cowher that compares to the tandem of Staley (5-11, 242) and Bettis (5-11, 252) was the 1994 season, and certainly Staley has more heart than Foster did and Bettis has more experience than Morris did. So perhaps this is the season that Cowher can truly play his brand of football when it matters most.

With six games remaining, Staley has 707 yards (4.7) and Bettis has 510 (3.6). They are on pace to finish with 1,131 and 816 rushing yards, respectively. At this point, both appear healthy enough for a strong stretch run.

Today, they'll bang heads with the NFL's third-ranked rushing defense, one that allows teams an average of 89.7 rush yards per game. The Redskins have done it without linebackers Mike Barrow and LaVar Arrington, and much of it without tackle Cornelius Griffin.

Griffin is expected to return today and team with Joe Salave'a in the middle of the Redskins' line. The only other true factor in the Redskins' run defense is rookie free safety Sean Taylor. It's really been a team defense as opposed to one with outstanding individuals.

"I know what Arrington brings to the table," said Staley, who's surprised at the Redskins' high ranking. "I'm kind of shocked with him not being in there. It tells you about the scheme and it tells you about the people they have backing him up. They're pretty good."

In 11 games against the Redskins, Staley has rushed for over 62 yards only once - in 1999 when he gained 122 on 28 carries. Staley averages 14 carries for 49 yards (3.5) against the Redskins.

"If I'm not mistaken," he said, "when I was (in Philadelphia), we might have lost one to them, two at the most."

And with deep threat Plaxico Burress out with an injury today, that's what matters the most. That and the health of not only the best 1-2 running game in the league, but the best Bill Cowher's ever had.

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