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Madden: Zereoue deserves more playing time

Saturday, September 29, 2001

The last time the Steelers reached the Super Bowl, they didn't have a star running back. The year was 1995. The Steelers alternated scatback Erric Pegram with power runner Bam Morris. The result was 813 yards on 213 carries for the 5-foot-10-inch, 185-pound Pegram and 559 yards on 148 carries for the 6-foot, 237-pound Morris.

It resulted in an appearance in Super Bowl XXX as the Steelers had two mediocre, but very different runners overachieve at running back.

The Steelers should use the same model this season, applying it to Amos Zereoue and Jerome Bettis. Only this time, they wouldn't be working with mediocre talent.

Bettis should get the majority of carries, perhaps 60 percent, as befits his status as an eight-time 1,000-yard rusher. But Zereoue should get a solid 40 percent of the carries.

Zereoue has sub-4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He has incredible power and a muscular 210 pounds packed on his 5-foot-8 frame. Zereoue's height actually works in his favor; it's tough for defenders to locate him behind the Steelers' offensive line. He can turn the corner and catch passes out of the backfield, and he's learned to block in his two-plus NFL seasons.

Zereoue presents the opposition a totally different set of concerns than the 5-11, 255-pound Bettis, and that necessitates lots of extra preparation.

The Steelers must get away from using Zereoue only on passing downs, a philosophy that is all too predictable. He should play several entire series per game, while Bettis must stay in the game on third down occasionally. Until their passing game rises above its peak of the past three years -- which is somewhere between abject mediocrity and el stinko -- the Steelers must be versatile and unpredictable in other ways. Presenting two different running games would achieve that.

Almost every NFL team, of course, substitutes at running back on passing downs. Almost every NFL team relies on one back to carry the ball 80 to 90 percent of the time.

So the Steelers should dare to be different. Going against the grain wins.

Look at the St. Louis Rams, who used an Arena Football quarterback and a uniquely wide-open style to come out of nowhere and win a Super Bowl two seasons ago. Going against the grain makes your team more difficult to prepare for. Going against the grain would have to be better than the popgun offense the Steelers currently use.

This suggestion is no indictment of Bettis. I've grown to respect his work more and more over the past few years. He consistently gets big yardage despite running against eight- and nine-man lines, defenses generated by the fact that foes have zero respect for the Steelers' passing game. For Bettis to plunge into the teeth of the opposition defense and still succeed is nothing short of superhuman.

Having Zereoue share the rushing burden with Bettis would not only make Bettis more effective, it could prolong his career. Bettis is 29, but his straight-on style of running has made him one of the most beat-up and bruised 29 year olds on the planet.

Anyway, Zereoue deserves a shot. He has led the Steelers in preseason rushing for three consecutive years. He has learned the Steelers' scheme and applied himself to blocking, a duty he once detested. He has been sensational on special teams, covering kicks with ferocity.

Zereoue has done an admirable job swallowing his pride and becoming an effective NFL spare part after being a superduperstar in his college days at West Virginia. But he's not going to wait forever for his chance nor should he have to. He is an athlete of considerable promise.

The Pegram-Morris model of 1995 is ideal for Zereoue and Bettis. Zereoue is ready for more carries. At his size, he will probably never be a true No. 1 back. You don't see too many 5-8 workhorses. But he can be an effective and frequently used element of a good offense.

Bettis, is Bettis. He runs up the gut, utilizes his blocking well, gets hard yards and makes you pay the price for tackling him. Trouble is, he pays a similar price on every tackle. If Bettis continues to shoulder the Steelers' entire rushing burden, I'll be surprised if he's effective beyond next year.

Just imagine Bettis battering a team with his power for several carries, then Zereoue comes in. First he sprints to the corner, then he utilizes his surprising strength to dart off-tackle. Then Bettis returns. Then Zereoue comes back in. The defense would have to change its approach from series to series, from down to down. They might even have to change personnel. Chaos wouldn't be guaranteed, but it would certainly be possible. Bettis lasts longer. Zereoue gets better.

It worked once. It could work again.

Heck, it's got to work better than what the Steelers have been doing on offense for the past several seasons.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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