In the Steelers' 20-17 overtime playoff win over the new York Jets, Jerome Bettis gained 101 yards rushing, but with the game on the line it was Duce Staley carrying the ball.
It's come full circle, and for the Steelers that circle remains unbroken.
"It's been amazing we've been able to be consistent and play off of each other," said Bettis. "I really think the team feeds off of that because when you have two backs who can pound the football, it makes your life a lot easier."
The Steelers needed both because Bettis, the once and future starting halfback, cramped up between the end of regulation and the start of overtime. He'd gone over 100 yards for the seventh time in his seven starts but noticed something wasn't right when he began to warm up when the Jets faced third down in overtime.
"I started cramping," Bettis said. "It just wouldn't stop. It wouldn't let me out there, so there was no sense for me to go out there and do something stupid."
Bettis limped over to Staley and told him he had to go in the game.
"Nobody knew but me," Bettis said. "But it was a situation where I knew I couldn't go out there."
Bettis had been decreed the starter Friday night by Coach Bill Cowher, who told both backs that Bettis would start and Staley would rotate in.
"We came in with the idea J.B. was going to play and we were just going to get a feel for the rest of it," said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "The way it kind of ended up in the fourth quarter is what we kind of envisioned happening pretty much the whole game in that J.B. would go and then Duce would be in there and go."
Staley, though, didn't enter the game until just after the two-minute warning in the first half. He didn't carry the ball until 1:53 remained in the third quarter. Was Staley disappointed?
"Jerome's had a great year and he deserved to get out there and start the game," he said. Staley deferred any questions about the game plan to the coaching staff.
"You know," he said, "this wouldn't work on a lot of teams. (We are) two guys that love the ball; two guys that want the ball; two guys that are competitors. You take this situation and put it on any other team and I don't think it would work."
But it has all season for the Steelers, and here they were in the fourth quarter, losing 17-10 to a 9-point underdog, and Staley was finally getting the ball. He carried three consecutive times for 17 yards to give the Steelers a first down at the Jets' 30.
Bettis re-entered and two plays later fumbled. Defensive end Shaun Ellis stripped the ball. He was the latter-day Jet who'd guaranteed the win, and it appeared as if he'd made the play to back up his words.
"I couldn't believe I fumbled the football," said Bettis, who hadn't fumbled in 353 previous carries. "I never fumble it. It was a mistake on my part. That's something I pride myself on not doing. I pride myself on being a guy you can count on."
The Jets punted the ball back and Bettis and Staley combined to matriculate the ball down the field and into the end zone. Hines Ward took a Utah pass from Ben Roethlisberger for the score that forced overtime.
But that's when the Bus broke down and Staley returned to the role of primary ball carrier. When the Steelers gained possession in overtime, Staley carried six times for 28 yards on the game-winning field goal drive. He had an equipment problem and gave way to Bettis for a carry. Roethlisberger then sneaked before Jeff Reed kicked the game-winning field goal.
Staley gained all of his 54 yards (4.9 avg.) in the second half and looked like the same back who'd gained 707 yards in seven starts before an injured hamstring allowed Bettis to carry the team down the stretch.
"He looked good," Bettis said. "He was quick, making the cuts. That was great to see. I needed him and he was big for this team."
"I'm still not 100 percent," said Staley. "I know coach is going to get me for that because he hates when I say that. But hopefully I can continue to build, the team gets stronger and we come back and fight next week."
In the AFC Championship Game, Bettis will be expected to start and Staley will be expected to take to the bench without complaint, the same way Bettis had in the first half of the season.
"Duce has been in the situation before where he's had to deal with something like this, so it's not new to him," Bettis said. "It's not new to me either, so I think it's a situation where you've got two guys who understand the situation and don't want to derail the train because of ego. I think it's beautiful because neither one of us have big egos."
Steelers rally and advance
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