Gimpy 'Bus' slows Steelers NFL: With Jerome Bettis probably on the sideline, Pittsburgh must bank on untested backs to run against the Ravens on Sunday.

October 15, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

The Pittsburgh Steelers won't find out until tomorrow if they'll be able to take "The Bus" out of the garage Sunday.

Jerome Bettis, the 250-pound Bus and the trigger man of the potent Steelers running game, suffered a slight knee ligament tear Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals and coach Bill Cowher said yesterday he's 50-50 for the game against the Ravens.

Bettis didn't practice yesterday, and Cowher said he won't practice today, either.

"We'll see how he is on Friday," he said.

Bettis said if he can put the uniform on, he would like to see some action, even if it's on a part-time basis.

"I'm not the kind of guy who wants to just put on those pads and just sit around," Bettis said.

Said Cowher, "It's hard to say what the plan will be until we get a better understanding of what his health situation is come Friday."

Cowher said he doesn't want Bettis to play if he'd risk further injury.

Meanwhile, two young players, second-year running back Richard Huntley and rookie Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, are gearing up to take on more of the workload.

Huntley, whose biggest moment in the spotlight came in the opener when he was streaking toward the end zone and the Ravens' Duane Starks punched the ball out of his arms for a touchback, is averaging 5.5 yards a carry with 171 yards in 31 carries.

But when Bettis went out Sunday, Huntley came in and fumbled at the Bengals' 13 when the Steelers were ahead 10-3 in the second period. If they had gone up 17-3, they might have taken control of the game they eventually lost, 25-20.

Cowher, though, said Huntley and Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who's now the third-down back, can handle the running back duties.

"No one's going to run like Jerome Bettis," said Cowher. "He's a Pro Bowl player and a big part of what we do. But Richard and Chris are good prospects. This is the best depth that we've had backing up since I've been here. I feel very comfortable with those guys."

Fuamatu-Ma'afala, a 252-pound player who's as big as the Bus, has carried only twice, but may have a future because Cowher has gone to the trouble of learning how to pronounce his name.

"I had to practice it a little bit by myself in the office and it kind of just rolls off the tongue," Cowher said.

It's difficult to judge what the loss of Bettis could mean against the Ravens, because he wasn't a factor in the first game. In the opener in Baltimore, the Ravens keyed on Bettis and held him to 41 yards on 23 carries.

The Ravens figured Kordell Stewart, who's off to a shaky start, couldn't beat them in the air. It turned out they were right, but what they didn't count on was the fact their special teams virtually would give the game away. A bad snap resulted in a botched punt that led to a Steelers touchdown, and Matt Stover missed three field-goal attempts. That was a 16-point swing in a game the Steelers won, 20-13.

"They were ready for everything we did," Bettis said of the Ravens' run defense. "They had a full off-season to prepare for us, and they had some schemes we weren't ready for and didn't expect out of them. They blitzed us pretty good and brought eight men, sometimes nine, in the box. They were ready to stop the run at all costs."

That was the start of what hasn't been a vintage season for Bettis after he rushed for 1,665 and 1,431 yards in his first two seasons with the Steelers. He's only sixth in the AFC with 413 yards, a figure Denver's Terrell Davis has more than doubled with 865 yards.

Bettis was off to a good start Sunday, getting 55 yards in 11 zTC carries, before he was hurt against the Bengals.

The whole Steelers offense hasn't been in sync as the team makes the adjustment to new offensive coordinator Ray Sherman, who came from Minnesota after Chan Gailey got the head coaching job in Dallas.

The loss of free agents Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson hasn't helped either, although the Steelers are no strangers to losing players in free agency.

The Steelers are already two games behind Jacksonville in the AFC Central at 3-2, and after Sunday they go to Kansas City for a Monday night game, play host to Green Bay in another Monday night game Nov. 9 and are home to Jacksonville on Nov. 22.

Slow starts are nothing new to the Steelers, who started out 1-2 last year and 3-4 in 1995 when they went to the Super Bowl. The team takes it for granted that it will rebound.

"You deal with the injuries and all the obstacles and adversity that happen along with it," Cowher said. "You can't get too caught up in it. You're going to play 16 games no matter what. You have bounce back after the losses and keep your head on straight after the wins."

Said Bettis: "That's not even a question mark [that the team will rebound]. I think it starts with the head coach. He's the first one to let us know where we are. It's just a matter of when we're going to turn all the engines on."

One thing the Steelers have going for them Sunday is the home field, where they hold a 24-4 regular-season edge over the Browns-Ravens, who haven't won in Pittsburgh in the 1990s.

Steelers at a glance

Last game: Lost to the Cincinnati Bengals, 25-20, last Sunday.

Last meeting with Ravens: Beat them, 20-13, in this season's opener at Camden Yards on Sept. 6.

Who's hot: The running game. Behind running back Jerome Bettis, the Steelers, who rank second in the NFL in rushing, have gained 442 yards on the ground over their past two games, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. However, Bettis is listed as questionable for Sunday with a slight tear in a left knee ligament.

Who's not: Quarterback Kordell Stewart, who hasn't thrown for more than 173 yards in a game this season. The Steelers rank last in the league in passing (114.6) and Stewart has attempted only four passes longer than 30 yards.

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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