Notebook: Randle El the edge

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Antwaan Randle El finished the regular season with the best three-game stretch of his three-year pro career, but was virtually written out of the Steelers' game plan last week against the New York Jets.

After catching 15 passes for 285 yards (19.0 avg.) and 2 touchdowns against some of the top defenses in the NFL - Buffalo (2nd ranked), Baltimore (6th) and the New York Giants (13th) - to end the season, Randle El caught 1 pass for 6 yards against the Jets.

Upon the return of Plaxico Burress, who in his best 3-game stretch this season caught 13 passes for 253 (19.5) and 2 touchdowns, Randle El was the forgotten man.

"Yeah, I guess you could say that. That's the way it works sometimes," he said.

Tonight against the Patriots, Randle El could be the main man. As a third wide receiver, he gives the Steelers a clear match-up advantage over New England Patriots receiver-turned-emergency-nickel-back Troy Brown.

Randle El, of course, praised the way Brown has played on defense since he moved there the week after Ty Law was injured against the Steelers. Brown has 3 interceptions and last week helped hold Indianapolis Colts slot man Brandon Stokely to 4 catches.

"He sits back and he kind of knows what route you're running out of that formation and sits inside or sits outside depending on what he thinks," Randle El said. "Sometimes he guesses right and sometimes he doesn't. But it helps that he's a wide receiver so he knows what most routes will be."

Steelers flanker Hines Ward added a few more details on Brown's play.

"They don't ask him to do a lot. They're not going to have him singled up," Ward said. "He's always going to have help somewhere but they just do a great job. (Rodney) Harrison does a great job of putting their guys in the right position and making sure they don't give up a lot of plays."

By the way, which Steelers wide receiver would make the move to cornerback if needed?

"I would say me," Randle El said. "I'd like to be in the slot and cover the inside guy."

BETTIS VS. PATS

Steelers fans happily point out that Patriots running back Corey Dillon, who didn't play in the Halloween game, has only two 100-yard games out of 13 played against the Steelers. Dillon averages 68.6 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry against the Steelers.

But Jerome Bettis' stats are even worse against the Patriots. Bettis gained 65 yards on 15 carries last Halloween to raise his per-game average to 49.4 and per-carry average to 3.1.

Included in those stats are Bettis' three playoff games against the Patriots, in which he averaged 39.3 yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry.

"It doesn't really make a difference," Bettis said. "The past is the past. All that matters is winning."

Injuries, like the groin injury that limited him to 8 yards in 9 carries in the 2001 AFC title game, have played a part in Bettis' efforts against the Patriots.

"Significantly," he said. "This one I feel great, the best I've felt in a long time, especially going into a playoff game."

Bettis did have an ankle injury that kept him out of the regular-season finale in Buffalo.

"It was nothing," Bettis said. "Don't get me wrong, it was messed up. Luckily we had the weeks off. If the Buffalo game was a playoff game I probably would not have been able to play. Well, no, I probably would've played, but I probably wouldn't have been that effective."

Bettis will turn 33 on Feb. 16 and retirement is a possibility. Is he approaching this game like it's his last?

"I approach every game like that. It's the way you have to," he said. "When you get my age, everything could be the last."

RUSSELL'S WORLD

The season has been a dream come true for McKeesport native and Steelers defensive back Russell Stuvaints. But had circumstances changed even slightly, Stuvaints would've been coming into tonight's game as a member of the Patriots.

The Steelers cut Stuvaints at the end of training camp and he was picked up by the Patriots the weekend before their Thursday night opener against the Colts.

He was placed on the Patriots' practice squad and worked with the team from Monday to Saturday. On the weekend, he went home to fetch his car and a few belongings. He was driving back to New England in the middle of the night when his agent called and said the Steelers had claimed him off the Patriots' practice squad just before the Patriots activated him.

"New England told me they were going to activate me by putting me on the active roster right away, but their game was Thursday," Stuvaints said. "It would've been too soon since I'd just been released on Sunday. They told me to just come down and learn the playbook and 'show us what you can do and there's a good chance you'll be activated' because they only had eight defensive backs on the roster. We have 10 here. So there was a real good chance."

Did Stuvaints let the Steelers know that the Patriots were going to make that move?

"It was something like that," Stuvaints said, "but I don't really want to get into it."

So what's it like being a part of his childhood team during a 16-1 season?

"It's a really amazing dream," he said. "It's overwhelming at times. I feel so grateful and blessed to be here. Some of my friends are really in awe of it. I feel a lot of love from around the neighborhood. I feel it from all the media. This is just how I thought it would be."


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