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Steelers Bettis bashes comeback-minded Bengals

Monday, September 22, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

CINCINNATI -- The members of the Cincinnati Bengals' defense insisted they were not surprised in the slightest when Jerome Bettis finally joined the Steelers' huddle after 2 1/2 quarters of inactivity.

"You know he's over there in uniform, so you're expecting him," linebacker Brian Simmons said. "It's not like they brought him out of the stands."

Still, judging by Cincinnati's woefully inadequate response to Bettis' late entry in what wound up a 17-10 loss yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium, it would be easy to surmise that the approach to Bettis was one of out of sight, out of mind.

Either that, or the Bengals were out of breath.

The Steelers had developed a fairly consistent running game through the first half with starter Amos Zereoue in the backfield, as he managed 42 yards on 11 carries. He ran four more times for 16 yards in the first two series of the second half, and it appeared possible Bettis would stay on the sideline all afternoon. Bettis, who lost his starting job in the preseason, had only 21 yards on eight carries in the first two games.

But he made his first appearance yesterday with 7:15 left in the third quarter, the point at which many of the Bengals felt the game shifted.

"As soon as Jerome came on," safety Rogers Beckett said, "everything seemed different."

Bettis finished a drive Zereoue started by carrying six consecutive times from the Cincinnati 23 and into the end zone, culminating with a 1-yard submarine dive for the touchdown. Next drive, he carried three more times for 17 yards, including a 7-yard run to set up a field goal. And, just like that, the Steelers turned what had a been a tight game with little flow into one they led, 17-3, and dictated on both sides of the ball.

"You could tell they got more aggressive, pounding the ball, and they were following him," Beckett said of Bettis. "They would go 2 or 3 yards and have that attitude like, 'Let's get up and do it again.' He kept them on the field, just wearing the defense down."

"He changes the game," linebacker Kevin Hardy said. "I mean, they've got two good running backs and a whole array of weapons on offense, and we knew we had to prepare for all of them. But Jerome ... he's a different kind of running back than Zereoue."

Zereoue, who made only sporadic appearances after Bettis entered, finished with better statistics. Each had 16 carries, Zereoue gaining 69 yards and Bettis 59. But the greatest source of the Bengals' frustration in facing Bettis was neither his numerical worth nor the way he led the team to two second-half scoring drives. What irked them most was his work in the game's final six minutes.

Cincinnati had pulled within 17-10 after Jon Kitna's 5-yard touchdown pass to Peter Warrick with 5:59 remaining, and the chatter on the sideline among the defensive players was to get the ball back as quickly as possible.

"That was our goal: Get out there and get off the field right away," safety Mark Roman said. "But we ended up letting the offense down."

Just as Bettis boosted the Steelers' offense, which took over at its 20-yard line after the kickoff and was in equally urgent need of first downs and a running clock. Bettis ran the first two plays for 7 and 5 yards. Two pass plays later, he rushed for 6 more before losing 4. Zereoue entered in the shotgun formation and converted a third-and-8 with an 11-yard run. Two more short runs by Bettis and one by fullback Dan Kreider, and Tommy Maddox was able to take a knee at the Cincinnati 23.

Marvin Lewis, the Bengals' rookie head coach and former assistant under Bill Cowher with the Steelers, was intimately aware of the impact a healthy, hardy Bettis can have on a game. But that did not have him in a forgiving mood when discussing his defense, long his area of concentration.

"Jerome is a good back," Lewis said. "But we have to go tackle. They executed and moved the football on us. We were at a point in that game that, if we stop them, we get a chance to go out and play on offense."

"He's a dominant runner, and he has been for a long time," safety Kevin Kaesviharn said. "It's tough on a defense in that situation, late in the game, for him to come in fresh. But when he comes out there, even if it's like this, you have to be ready for him."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.

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