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Columnist Bob Smizik: Less than best of Bettis won't do

Thursday, November 26, 1998

By Bob Smizik, Post-Gazette Sports Columnist

PONTIAC, Mich. -- Maybe it's the cranky left knee that has lowered him to the level of mere mortal running back. Maybe it's the revamped and young offensive line that has reduced him to being the 10th leading rusher in the AFC . Maybe it's the absence for most of the season of fullback, lead blocker and good buddy Tim Lester that has made him just a hair slower at hitting the hole. And maybe it's just a bad year.


Whatever the reason, Jerome Bettis, The Bus, has been an imitation of his former self through the first 10 games.

He has run for 764 yards and is averaging 3.6 yards a carry. He's on pace to gain about 1,200. That's good, but it's not Bettis. He ran for 1,431 yards in 1996 and 1,665 last season. His yards per carry were 4.5 and 4.4.

If those statistics aren't alarming enough as the Steelers ready for this afternoon's game with the Detroit Lions, try these:

In the past five games Bettis has carried 118 times and gained 351 yards. That's less than 3 yards a carry.

He has been held to 55 yards or less five times this season. Last year he was never held below 60 yards.

He had 10 100-yard games in both of the past two seasons. He has four this year with five games to go.

Yes, the defenses are stacked to stop him and daring Kordell Stewart to beat them. But when hasn't that been the case?

Clearly, this is not The Bus at his best.

The knee, the line and the absence of Lester have all been a factor in his declining production. But if the numbers are down, he is not.

"It's been brutal," he said. "I'm in the mind-set where I know I'm going to take some shots. I've got some young guys up front. I have to do that to enable this team to win. I'm comfortable with that.

"Being a leader means sometimes you do things you don't necessarily want to do. If that means I've got to stick my head out there, then that's what I have to do."

Coach Bill Cowher is well aware Bettis is playing under less than ideal circumstances.

"Jerome is not the type of guy to ever make excuses," Cowher said. "If he can play, he's going to play. I think he's had a very good year.

"Jerome is very much an inspirational leader for our football team. He gives us so much more than what you see on the field. He's a great leader, he's a great worker, and he's a guy we all feed off of."

He has the enormous respect of the opposition.

"I don't know that there's anybody like Bettis," Detroit Coach Bobby Ross said. "This is a powerful man. He's explosive, he's a guy playing professional tailback who was a college fullback, and he's gotten bigger.

"He's just a powerful individual who's a very good athlete."

In the final weeks, the Steelers need Bettis at his best if they are to win the division and make any kind of impact in the postseason.

Maybe going home will help. For the first time in about 10 years, Bettis will be home in Detroit for Thanksgiving. He's making the most of his return to the town where he was a celebrated high school player who matriculated to Notre Dame.

"This will be the first time, I believe in about 10 years, I've had the opportunity to be home for Thanksgiving," Bettis said. "I've had to travel from college to professional ranks, and I've never had the opportunity to be home for Thanksgiving."

Bettis was to be joined by many of his teammates for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at the home of his parents last night. Judging from the looks of her son, Gladys Bettis is an excellent cook and the players figured to be delighted with the feast she planned.

But if the menu went as announced it might have been a delight for the players but a nightmare for a nutritionists, who would have preferred less heavy fare.

But maybe mamma's cooking the night before the game will get The Bus in gear. A win over Detroit might be easy enough to accomplish with Bettis at his best. But if this team wants to play well into January, Bettis must again be The Bus and not just another pick-up truck.

Bob Smizik can be reached at:

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