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Steelers Bettis, surprised and disappointed, accepts Cowher's decision to start Zereoue

Riemersma named as starting tight end

Thursday, August 21, 2003

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Jerome Bettis had no inkling he would be demoted for the first time in his career with the Steelers after concluding a training camp he called one of his best.

 
 


Steelers Notebook

Mental block remains at right tackle

   
 
 

"I was surprised," Bettis said, shortly after Coach Bill Cowher announced Amos Zereoue would open the season as the Steelers' starting halfback. "I wasn't mad, but I was disappointed. As a competitor, all you want is for it to be a decision on the field and it wasn't a decision on the field." Citing a "gut feeling," Cowher revealed his decision yesterday at a news conference as training camp concluded at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. It's the first time Bettis was benched to start a season with the Steelers.

Bettis was their starting halfback since he joined them after a trade with St. Louis in 1996. His 11,542 yards rushing ranks 10th in NFL history and needs only 771 to surpass Jim Brown and move into sixth place.

Cowher also chose newcomer Jay Riemersma to start at tight end ahead of Mark Bruener. It will be the first time Bruener does not open the season as their starter since 1996, his second in the NFL.

Cowher said he still plans to use Bruener and Bettis often and left the door open for them to start if he deems it appropriate.

Steelers running back Jerome Bettis won't be in the starting lineup for the first time since joining the team in 1996. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"We're going to use our running back situation with Jerome and with Amos a lot like we went into the last couple of years," Cowher said. "Both those guys will play. We're going to utilize them both and, hopefully, have them both fresh through the course of the year. But we're going to start the season with Amos."

He told his players of his decision Monday night.

"He just said it was a decision he came to," Bettis said. "I've been on the better side of most of Coach Cowher's gut decisions and this is the first time it has not gone in my favor. I can deal with it, having been on the better side of most of them."

Zereoue missed the first preseason game with a sprained ankle, and neither player has found much running room behind what has been a makeshift offensive line. Bettis has 24 yards on 11 carries and Zereoue has 18 yards on six carries.

"I don't think one player totally outperformed the other player," Cowher said. "I made a gut decision, and this is the decision that was made. That's really the only basis of it."

Steelers Coach Bill Cowher named Amos Zereoue as his starting halfback. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Several factors likely went into Cowher's decision:

With the line in flux, it would be difficult for the 252-pound Bettis to hammer away between the tackles early in the season, and Zereoue's shifty running style and ability to get outside might suit that situation better.

It is a way for Cowher to reduce the early load on Bettis and save him for later in the season. Bettis was worn down late in the past two seasons with a groin injury in 2001 and a knee injury in 2002.

Zereoue fits an emerging passing offense more than the power-running Bettis.

At 31, Bettis has not shown signs of wearing down this summer. He reported to camp at 252 pounds, svelte for him, and in good shape after knee surgery in February. He missed one day of practice because two players stepped on his foot.

"I felt my camp was one of the best I ever had here," Bettis said. "Physically, I feel good."

Cowher said things could change as the season moves along.

"They're both going to play, that's one thing people have to understand. This is not like a quarterback situation where you can't keep going back and forth with quarterbacks. That creates some disruptions in your offense from that standpoint. But when you're talking about a running back, I think you can very easily change running backs."

Bettis led the AFC in rushing through 11 games in 2001 when his season was ended by a groin injury. He finished with 1,072 yards. Last season, a piece of cartilage jammed in his knee joint and caused him to lose flexibility down the stretch. He gained just 666 yards, the only time he did not rush for 1,000 with the Steelers. Zereoue led them with 762 yards rushing, his most in four seasons.

"Hopefully, we can have both those players strong going down the stretch and have a good November, December and January with Jerome," Cowher said. "We really haven't had that in the last couple of years. He's been good in September and October."

One reservation Cowher did not raise yesterday is how Bettis might do coming off the bench. Bettis averaged 333 carries a season in his first five seasons with the Steelers before injuries curtailed him the past two years. He often has said he's more effective in the second half after defenses get worn down by the pounding.

"I've never done it before, so we'll see," Bettis said. "It's the first time. It's easy to say I can do it but I've never done it. Who's to say I can't do it, who's to say I can?"

Jay Riemersma will start at tight end when the season opens. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Riemersma's pick as the starting tight end did not come as such a surprise. The Steelers signed him to a three-year, $3.95 million contract with an $850,000 signing bonus as an unrestricted free agent after Buffalo released him. They then forced Bruener to substantially reduce his salary from $2.05 million.

Cowher said he made his decision now to end speculation long before the team opens the season Sept. 7 against Baltimore.

"[Jerome] and Mark both are very proud players," Cowher said. "They've been integral parts of this team and will continue to be. But their roles are a little bit different now heading into the season. Like I said, that doesn't mean things won't change, and if a change needs to be made it will be made. That goes for any other position as well."

Zereoue and Riemersma will take up their new starting positions at 8:11 p.m. today in Heinz Field when the Steelers play the Dallas Cowboys.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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