`Bus' insists wheels ready

Six-week layoff hurdle for Bettis vs. Ravens Sunday

January 17, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- Though the skies are typically overcast here, one thing is clear: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis will play in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Ravens.

After yesterday's practice, he playfully grabbed a reporter's jacket after being asked again about his groin-muscle injury, then put his hands over his agonized face as if he were auditioning for a high school play.

"I'm fine," Bettis said in his best whiny voice. "Damn! I told you I'm fine. I've been fine."

Good spirits aside, details remain murky on the significance of the Pro Bowl back's return -- at least until the end of Sunday's game, which will be his first action since "The Bus" was tackled out of bounds Dec. 2.

For a player who missed a total of three games in his eight previous seasons, not even Bettis knows whether the time off will have hindered him or refreshed him.

"You try to watch the film and be meticulous on things you do," said Bettis, referring to what might make up for limited play. "But there's nothing you can do. ... You just have to go out there and adjust on the fly, I think."

The state of rust or restoration may not even matter, given the way other Steelers backs have performed in the star runner's absence. While Bettis' 1,072 yards over 11 games is a major reason for his team's status as the NFL's No. 1 rushing team, the group's dip from 179.2 yards a game to 160.2 has not been drastic.

Bettis said the improved running of Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and R.J. Bowers -- capped with 221 yards in the season finale against Cleveland -- removed the pressure for him to return to the lineup, though doctors cleared him to play as far back as when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis challenged him to tape up his groin before the teams' second meeting Dec. 16.

"You have to worry about their running game all the time. I don't care who you have back there," Ravens coach Brian Billick said during a teleconference yesterday. "I'm sure Bill [Cowher, Steelers coach] has timed this just right for him to come back and be effective."

In six seasons since being traded to Pittsburgh from St. Louis in 1996, Bettis has become the face of the Steelers' franchise, using quick feet to complement his squat, 255-pound frame and gaining at least 1,000 yards each year he's been here.

At age 29, he has 10,876 career rushing yards, a total surpassed by only 11 other backs. None of them works out at the team's Water Street training facility, a fact that teammates recognize.

"We get a Hall of Famer back. We get our guy back, the one who sets the pace," said Wayne Gandy, a veteran and the team's starter at left tackle. "In a game like that, when each team is trying to impose its will on each other, he's that guy that hits that safety or makes a big run over a corner or something that makes everyone even more energetic."

Before the injury, Bettis was having one of his best seasons, one that likely would have put him near 1,600 yards and into serious contention for the league's Most Valuable Player Award, given the Steelers' 13-3 record this season.

He even ran well against the Ravens -- 23 carrries for 91 yards in the teams' first meeting -- something that hadn't happened in the squads' previous five meetings heading into this season.

The Ravens have historically given Bettis trouble, holding him to 40 yards a game from 1998 through 2000.

"During those times, we had a revamped offensive line and so there was no cohesion," Bettis said. "We've finally gotten some cohesiveness with guys who have been here for a couple of years together and it's made a big difference for us offensively."

For a player who had played through seemingly every injury in the book -- including some that inspire pure non-recognition, such as compartment syndrome (a muscle disorder), it was tough to leave the rushing party his line was throwing.

"Holes," Bettis said of the difference in what he saw against the Ravens this year as opposed to last. "Holes like I haven't seen in a long time."

When Lewis made his groin comment before the Steelers' visit to Baltimore, Bettis' pride could have put him on the field, but for him to play wouldn't have been smart. His comments favorably comparing Cincinnati's Takeo Spikes to Lewis had irked a few Ravens, sure, but he was also afraid of doing himself further physical injury.

So he stayed on the sideline as Pittsburgh beat the Ravens, 26-21, at PSINet Stadium. Now, Cowher says that, with the risk diminished, his team can use its star back.

"It's the playoffs," Cowher said earlier this week. "We knew he was going to come back and play. It was obviously a matter of at what point it was worth the risk."

Is it worth the worry for Ravens fans or joy for Steelers supporters? Well, in three career games coming off an injury, Bettis has rushed for 277 yards on 84 carries.

Still, coming back from a multiple-games layoff is new territory for Bettis, and he won't pretend otherwise.

"I won't know until I get out there," he said. "You can condition and think you're fine. but until you get out there, you won't know."

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