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Madden: It didn't take much guts to move Bettis to bench

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Bill Cowher says he chose Amos Zereoue to start ahead of Jerome Bettis based on a "gut feeling." That's believable. This decision was so obvious, it could easily have been made without use of a brain.

I know, I know, we all love "The Bus." The media sure do. Prepare now, oh ink-stained wretches and microphone jockeys, the vigorous campaign to get Jerome his job back. It must be difficult for Bettis to run full speed with those guys permanently attached to his backside by their lips.

The yinzers love "The Bus," too. One of the species called my show and said, "Pure fact: Whenever Jerome gets 100 yards, the Steelers win. Pure fact." To which I replied, "Pure fact. Whenever any running back gains 100 yards, his team usually wins. Pure fact." His retort: dial tone.

Bettis is still a serviceable back. Used in short-yardage situations, as the occasional battering-ram changeup, and to kill the clock in the fourth quarter with the Steelers ahead, Bettis can actually be more valuable to the Steelers than he was the past two years. Used less in the regular season, he might actually be healthy for the playoffs.

Given who the Steelers have and what they can do, starting Zereoue is the right decision.

The Steelers pay lip service to returning to their smash-mouth roots on offense, but they don't have the personnel to do so, especially on the line.

They do, however, have the best 1-2-3 receiving combination in the NFL. They have a quarterback who throws a very accurate pass.

Now they have a running back who can catch the ball and a tight end who has caught the ball. With those options, Tommy Maddox might even be able to occasionally provide the black-and-gold with more points than the porous Steelers defense allows.

You can't play smash-mouth football on offense when your defense struggles. The Steelers won't need long drives this season. They just need a lot of points.

Zereoue caught 42 passes last year. Bettis caught 28 the past three years combined. Early in camp, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey spoke of the need for Maddox to look for dump-offs underneath instead of forcing passes into multiple coverage. Zereoue provides an ideal option in that regard.

Cowher likes Verron Haynes as the third-down back. But that's a role Zereoue filled very well in the past. With Zereoue as the starter, the Steelers can much more easily go no-huddle and keep the opposition's nickel or dime defense off the field in passing situations.

When you don't use "The Bus," you don't need a "Bus driver." Bettis has always insisted on having a fullback block for him. With Zereoue, the Steelers can go with more single-back sets and use a third wide receiver in place of a fullback. This gets Antwaan Randle El on the field more.

There are no nine words I like better than "This gets Antwaan Randle El on the field more." Randle El is an emerging game-breaker who might turn out to be the Steelers' biggest difference-maker.

There are so many logical reasons to start Zereoue, I could run out of space before listing them all. But I can't think of one logical reason to start Bettis that isn't based on living in the past.

Sure, Zereoue is small and he might get hurt. But Bettis' days of durability are long over.

The decision to start Zereoue added some excitement to an otherwise lackluster training camp. The Steelers are a soft, lifeless football team right now, a borderline playoff club that walks and talks like great things are inevitable this season, which is hardly the case.

Bettis personifies that attitude. He has always been prone to talking about his accomplishments and his record. About having nothing to prove. Maybe Bettis is satisfied a little too easily. He is definitely a future Hall of Famer, but he has yet to play in a Super Bowl. Don't forget, the Steelers did just that the season before Bettis arrived in Pittsburgh.

Bettis certainly looked motivated Thursday against Dallas. He threw several crushing blocks, actually putting Cowboys lineman La'Roi Glover on his back at one point. Coming soon to Giant Eagle: Jerome Bettis "The Bus" pancake mix!

Zereoue has precious little track record to fall back on. This is his chance to carve out his niche in Steelers history. I don't expect Zereoue to disappoint.

I'm not much for compromise in this situation, but the Steelers could use a "thunder and lightning" tailback duo. It worked in 1995 when Bam Morris (559 yards) and Erric Pegram (813 yards) got the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX.

My "gut feeling" is this: The move works. Zereoue eats up Baltimore on opening day like he always does. No longer feeling the need to get the star running back a certain amount of carries, the Steelers' offense finally moves into the new millennium. Bettis gets cut in the off-season.

I love a happy ending.

Mark Madden is the hosts of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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