With Bettis returning, Steelers will get leg up

Pittsburgh's top back has missed 4 games in row due to groin, hip injuries

Steelers' rush offense vs. Ravens' rush defense

RAVENS vs. STEELERS

January 17, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, a fixture in the team's running game the past six seasons, is expected to make his return from groin and hip injuries that kept him out of the past four games. It is the longest absence of Bettis' career.

His first live hits since a Dec. 2 game at Minnesota will come against a Ravens defense that finished fourth in the league against the run.

The lack of work for Bettis does not diminish what he is capable of doing, according to Ravens coach Brian Billick. Bettis was the key contributor to the league's top rushing attack.

"You don't ever worry about his effectiveness," Billick said of Bettis. "He is an effective back. Now, coming back for the first time after a layoff like that, I'm sure Bill [Cowher, Steelers coach] is anxious. You are always going to be anxious when a guy comes in and gets hit a little bit about whether he will hold onto the ball."

If he does not or shows too much rust, Pittsburgh can always turn to backups Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Amos Zereoue, a combination that filled in adequately for Bettis.

Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Zereoue combined to rush for 88 yards on 25 carries in the Steelers' 26-21 win over the Ravens on Dec. 16. Kordell Stewart, always a threat to run, also rushed for 55 yards that day and leads all quarterbacks with 537 rushing yards this year.

The Ravens, though, are expecting to see a great deal of Bettis, who was either first or second in the AFC in rushing most of the season before finishing with 1,072 yards and four touchdowns in 12 games.

"The little rust I will have I figure it will be gone by the first couple of snaps," Bettis said.

Bettis undoubtedly will run straight at the Ravens' defense, a strategy that failed Miami's Lamar Smith miserably last week.

Smith gained just 6 yards on six carries, and the Dolphins mustered 46 yards on the ground for the game. But in the three previous games, teams were able to run the football.

Cincinnati's Corey Dillon rushed for 127 yards, Tampa Bay's Mike Alstott had 80 yards and even Minnesota's Michael Bennett (52 yards) found some daylight on the Ravens' front seven.

Bettis is glad he will get the chance Sunday.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do to have to sit there and watch and know that I couldn't help my teammates," Bettis said. "I'm just glad it's over."

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