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Madden: Steelers must run to beat Ravens

Saturday, January 19, 2002

The Baltimore Ravens have the NFL's fourth-best defense against the run. No matter. The Steelers can still run the ball against the Ravens to great effect.

But it won't be easy.

To suggest that Jerome Bettis will be anywhere near maximum efficiency after missing five games seems laughable. Bettis' rhythm won't return for at least a half, and he might not be in true game shape for the rest of the Steelers' season, however long that is. Reliable sources close to the Steelers indicate Bettis' groin injury was more severe than the club admitted. Bettis' groin muscle was reportedly torn away from the bone, the same injury that plagued Jacksonville back Fred Taylor this season.

A playoff game is no time to let a running back -- even a future Hall of Famer slowly find himself. If Bettis isn't up to par, but gets all the carries anyway, the Steelers could find themselves watching the AFC championship game on television. Coach Bill Cowher must have alternatives at the ready should Bettis falter, and he must have the nerve to use them the instant they're necessary.

The alternatives are actually plentiful. It's Cowher's nerve you should worry about.

Bettis wants the ball, and Cowher always gives it to him. If Bettis stumbles coming out of the gate, Cowher will still make him his workhorse. Cowher's one coaching weakness is a seeming obligation to his big guns. I can just see the scenario: The Steelers lose as Bettis gets 48 yards on 25 carries. The postgame Cowher quote: "Jerome's our guy. We were going to win or lose with Jerome."

Me, I'd rather win with Amos Zereoue than lose with Bettis.

I'm certainly not assuming that Bettis will fail. Adrenaline might make Bettis' rust vanish instantly, Bettis might get 100 yards, and this column might be rendered irrelevant (like so many before it).

But if Bettis has a bad first quarter, what's wrong with giving Zereoue a shot in the second? Zereoue tore the Ravens' defense apart Dec. 16 when the Steelers won, 26-21, at Baltimore. Zereoue ripped off 73 yards on 16 carries, his zig-zagging style the perfect complement to the Steelers' usual method of power running. Zereoue did something that day you almost never see: He made Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis miss. More than once, as a matter of fact.

If Bettis struggles, Zereoue must play. The Steelers can beat the Ravens without Bettis. They've done it already. But the Steelers can't beat the Ravens with an insignificant running game. Cowher can't try to force-feed Bettis a grand return at the risk of the whole team making an early playoff exit.

(If Bettis stiffs and the Steelers lose, by the way, watch this space for the critique, because you won't find it anywhere else. Steelers media: "Oh, you've got to go with Jerome. He da man!" Translation: "He gives us lots of great interviews, and we don't rip the coaching anyway." I don't believe the Steelers' media actually have pompons, though.)

Even if Bettis runs well, the Steelers should utilize the running ability of Kordell Stewart more than ever. (Note to offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey: Yes, I know I'm stating the obvious. But you've always got to spell it out for the citizens.)

Stewart carried 10 times for 55 yards the last time the Steelers and Ravens met. Like Zereoue, Stewart made Lewis miss. Between his freelancing off scrambles and his execution of running plays designed for him, Stewart is the Steelers' most dangerous weapon even before you consider his arm. That's especially true in a big game, because extra adrenaline can make defenders overpursue.

One other point of strategy: Baltimore linebacker-turned-defensive end Peter Boulware is a terrific pass-rusher. But at 6 feet 4 and a relatively spindly 255 pounds, he's not great against the run. If the Steelers establish their power running behind Bettis -- or Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala -- they might do so by running right at Boulware.

All these scenarios aside, I expect the Steelers to win tomorrow, and I expect Stewart's legs to be the difference.

But no matter how the scenario plays out, the Steelers had better win. If you lose your first playoff game after going 13-3, it's like you never went 13-3. Expectations in Pittsburgh are high, perhaps unreasonably high, and that's saying something when a team has legitimate Super Bowl possibilities. Most fans expect the Steelers to blow out the Ravens, and that's probably not going to happen.

Maybe the fantasy will become reality. But what if the fantasy becomes disaster?

If the Steelers lose tomorrow, this season is indeed a disaster. If Bettis is ineffective early, Cowher can't worry about Bettis' ego. Zereoue has to play. The Steelers don't have to win the Super Bowl to re-stake a claim among the NFL's elite. But they do have to win tomorrow. By any means necessary, as a great man once said. (Note to tailgaters: It was Malcolm X, not Chuck Noll.)

Mark Madden's talk show is heard from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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