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Steelers Witman driving as Bus returns to old form

Friday, October 06, 2000

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Since he was stuffed in the season opener by the National Football League's top rushing defense, Jerome Bettis has jumped back among the league rushing leaders and is averaging 102 yards per game in his past three outings. What's more, the running game that had its lowest total in 18 years against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 produced 209 yards last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had ranked seventh in the league against the run.

Fullback Jon Witman swings out to block on a play during the Steelers' 24-13 victory over the Jaguars last Sunday. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

There are several reasons for the turnaround, but Bettis wants to make sure one is not overlooked:

Fullback Jon Witman, the new Bus driver.

"He's been tremendous," Bettis said.

Witman put on such a punishing performance of blocking in the 24-13 victory against the Jaguars that his teammates and coaches have been talking about it all week. On one play, he slammed into Jaguars linebacker Kevin Hardy and knocked him back so far that Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala had a big hole on a 12-yard run to the Jaguars' 3.

"He blocked his backside off," tight end Mark Bruener said. "He really neutralized their linebackers, and that was one of the strengths of their defense."

"Wit is playing awesome," said quarterback Kent Graham. "He had Hardy Nickerson, he had Kevin Hardy, and both those guys were blitzing. He blocked unbelievable."

The difference in Witman, in his second year as a starter, is so dramatic that even the players have talked openly about his improvement.

Last year, Witman looked unsure of his assignments and played as though he was trying not to make a mistake. He would run tentatively into a hole and often get stood up by a linebacker.

This year, Witman is more confident and comfortable with his role, and he is not worried about making mistakes. Now, instead of using his 6-foot-1, 240-pound body as a shield, he is using it more as a battering ram. Linebackers are paying the price.

"When Jon hits you," Coach Bill Cowher said, "he hits you."

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The result is that the Steelers' running game has jumped from 31st to seventh in the NFL rankings, averaging 131 yards per game. Witman will be put to the test again Sunday because the New York Jets (4-0) rank seventh in the league against the rush and play a 3-4 defense that requires the linebackers to make a lot of tackles.

"He's been great up front," Bettis said. "He's been a super lead blocker."

"I even told him that on the plane [back from Jacksonville]," Fuamatu-Ma'afala said. "I said, 'Bro, you blocking way better than when I first got here.' He was doing his job well, but, now, he's even doubled his play. He's smashing people."

It is a welcome sight for the Steelers. Two years ago, they decided not to re-sign free-agent Tim Lester, one of the best blocking fullbacks in the league and one of Bettis' best friends. The two were nearly inseparable, on and off the field. Bettis was the Bus and Lester was the driver. With Lester leading the way, Bettis had his two most productive seasons with the Steelers, rushing for 1,431 yards and 11 touchdowns in 1996 and 1,665 yards in 1997.

But Lester wanted too much money, and the Steelers opted to re-sign Witman, their third-round choice in 1996. After a slow transition, Witman is making it look like a wise decision.

"Comfort is a big thing in it," Witman said. "When I first started out here, I was so worried about getting to my guy and not making mistakes that I was just shield-blocking, basically, not trying to make a good hit. Now I feel comfortable. I'm getting more and more confidence in myself, and the [offensive] line is doing a great job. I'm getting through wide-open holes that I can get to my guy pretty easy

"Now, if I make a mistake, I'm going to go full bore and at least hit the guy."

Witman has been doing that with regularity, and the result is that Bettis has been able to pick his way through holes more adroitly. Since he gained just 8 yards on nine carries against the Ravens, Bettis has 307 yards on 71 carries -- a 4.2-yard average -- the past three games.

And, since he's had to replace Richard Huntley (hamstring), Fuamatu-Ma'afala has rushed for 72 yards on 11 carries and one touchdown the past two games.

"The numbers tell it all," Witman said. "It's like when Jerome had 97 yards [against the Jaguars], it kind of upset me. I like to see that triple-digit number. But you get 200 yards rushing in a game, you know the linemen and the fullback are doing the job."

Said Bettis: "You look at the times where he's freed me up, it's been great. I'm happy that he's turned it up a notch from where he was."

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