Breaking Down the Steelers: The running backs

The 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers intrigued us, made us smile and surprised even their harshest critics. <br><br> Ultimately, however, they disappointed. <br><br>

But there is plenty to be excited about for next season. The core of the team is under contract for next season and the Steelers will open the 2005 season as one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

This will be a position-by-position look at the Steelers from 2004.

Today: The running backs.

Jerome Bettis was working media row this week at the Super Bowl as a spokesman for a deodorant or something and was on no less than three national radio shows that I heard.

Each host - acting as if he was going to get some kind of scoop - had the same question for Bettis: Is he going to retire?

The answer right now is that Bettis doesn't know and won't know for at least a few more weeks. He'll make a decision one way or another before the free agency period begins in early March, thus giving the Steelers time to decide what they want to do.

But make no mistake, if Bettis isn't playing for the Steelers next season, he won't be playing anywhere.

The Steelers want Bettis back if he wants to return. What to pay him will be the big question.

Bettis took a paycut this season and played for $1 million. You can bet he won't play for that little again next season, not after leading the Steelers with 941 yards rushing and a career-best 13 touchdowns.

Eddie George stole $2.5 million from the Dallas Cowboys this season. And that figure sounds about right for Bettis - if he wants to play again next season.

That would trim about $2 million off the Steelers' salary cap and again give them a nice one-two punch of Bettis and Duce Staley, who's scheduled to earn a base salary of about $2.2 million next season.

Staley began the season well for the Steelers and was averaging over 100 yards per game in the team's first seven contests before a hamstring injury sidetracked his season.

But Bettis turns 33 this month and Staley will soon be 30, meaning the Steelers should start looking for a back of the future soon.

Is that back Willie Parker or Verron Haynes, the two other halfbacks on the team's roster? I don't think so.

Haynes, who's a restricted free agent, has good hands, but at 5-10, 223-pounds, doesn't have the speed to get by without bruising size. He's a nice third-down option, but has had trouble staying healthy throughout his career.

Parker, who's much faster than Haynes - any of the other backs - has questionable hands. The 5-10, 208-pound Parker, who made team as an undrafted rookie, also has a tendency to want to rely on that speed too much and bounce everything outside.

He did have a 100-yard game in the team's regular season finale at Buffalo, but he was never a full-time runner at North Carolina and had fumbling problems there, though they didn't occur this season.

Given that Bettis is at or near the end of his career, Staley is 30 and Haynes will be an unrestricted free agent next season, the Steelers will likely address the position at some point on the draft. Bettis' decision will go a long way toward determining if that pick is on the first or second day.

At fullback, Dan Kreider had an outstanding season blocking, finally getting some recognition for his skills by being named an alternate to the Pro Bowl. Kreider doesn't touch the ball much, but pound-for-pound, he's one of the toughest guys on the team.

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