Bettis Has His Priorities Set

PITTSBURGH - For the first time in seven years, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis enters the second half of a season not on pace for 1,000 yards. <p> In fact, after missing the past two-and-a-half games with a sprained knee, Bettis isn't even the Steelers' leading rusher, having been supplanted by Amos Zereoue. That's not exactly what you would expect for a running back who needs only 35 yards to move past O.J. Simpson into 11th place on the NFL's all-time rushing list. <p>

When the Steelers (5-3) face the Atlanta Falcons (5-3) Sunday at Heinz Field, Bettis may miss his third consecutive start. He practiced sparingly Wednesday, but head coach Bill Cowher expects Bettis to return to full practice today and be ready to go against the Falcons.

Even if Bettis does play against Atlanta, he figures to lose some carries to Zereoue, who has 373 yards on 86 carries.

"That's been the formula since I've been here," said Bettis, who has 326 yards on 83 carries. "There's always been a second guy, a speed guy. You go back to my first year here, there was Erric Pegram. Unfortunately, during the middle part of my career here, we didn't have a guy who could handle that role, so everything got thrown on my lap."

"Now Amos is getting more and more involved in the offense. There hasn't been a situation where he hasn't gotten the opportunities, but I just think now he's doing well, people are saying he should be getting more."

The Steelers' game plan was to give Bettis 15 to 20 carries per game, with Zereoue also getting the ball five to 10 times as a change of pace and third-down back. Early in the season, however, that formula was tough to accomplish because the Steelers kept falling behind, taking them out of their running game. As a result, through three games, Bettis had only 32 carries for 100 yards.

But in the Steelers' next two games - at New Orleans and Cincinnati - Bettis looked like he was rounding into form, gaining 84 and 109 yards, respectively.

Then Bettis suffered a sprained knee in the second half of a victory against Indianapolis three weeks ago, and Zereoue took over. He gained 87 yards against the Colts and 164 in the next two games, including a career-high 111 against Cleveland last Sunday. The Steelers won both of those games, and are now 7-1 in the past two seasons when playing without their star runner.

Jerome Bettis now finds himself in an unfamiliar position. With eight games remaining, he needs 674 yards for 1,000, something he's done in eight of his nine seasons in the NFL, including all six of his years in Pittsburgh. His six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in Pittsburgh are tied for the team record with Franco Harris.

Gaining 1,000 yards, however, is not his main concern.

"Its' always a goal that you set, but at this stage I've already got a bunch of those," said Bettis, who owns six of the top 12 rushing seasons in Steelers' history. "I want to win. That's the bottom line with me."

Some would argue that a 1,000-yard season from Bettis would be what the Steelers need to win the majority of their games. Bettis disagrees. He had two 1,000-yard seasons in three years with the Rams before they traded him to the Steelers in 1996. The team didn't have a winning record in any of those seasons.

"My first year, I had 1,400 yards and we went 5-11," said Bettis. "It does not go hand-in-hand. Ask Corey Dillon (about) that."

"Any day, at this stage, I've had all of that individual success. I've done all those things. I've been to Pro Bowls. I've had 1,400 yards, 1,500 yards, 1,600 yards. I've done all that. I just want to win. At this point in my career, winning is more important to me than any individual success."

--Dale Lolley

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