After a spirited practice last week Jerome Bettis strolled into the empty cafeteria at the Pittsburgh Steelers' training facility and helped himself to three oatmeal-raisin cookies, warming them in a nearby toaster. Normally the 5'11", 255-pound running back is cautious about indulging his sweet tooth, especially going into the playoffs, but he munched on those cookies without remorse. The Bus is rolling toward retirement. He can eat whatever he pleases, whenever he pleases. ¬∂ That's not the only change in Bettis's routine. As his 13th NFL season winds down, he's stockpiling mementos: mangled gloves, muddy shoes, anything that will remind him of his final playing days. But as he's quick to point out, his interest in keepsakes shouldn't be taken as a sign that he's lost his hunger for the game. Bettis still relishes his role as Pittsburgh's battering ram. "It's fair to say," he said between bites, "that I'm our Old Reliable." ¬∂ The Steelers will need every ounce of Bettis's desire this Sunday, when they travel to Indianapolis to face the 14-2 Colts in an AFC divisional playoff. In a postseason weekend consisting of four rematches of regular-season games, the one in the RCA Dome holds the most intrigue. Though Pittsburgh posted a 31-17 wild-card win over the Bengals in Cincinnati on Sunday, the game essentially ended on the Bengals' second play, when Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen inadvertently delivered a direct hit on quarterback Carson Palmer's left knee, tearing the ACL. The air went out of a raucous Paul Brown Stadium crowd, and the Steelers wore down their AFC North rival.
The task won't be so easy this weekend. The Colts dominated the Steelers, 26-7, in their first meeting, a Monday-night game on Nov. 28. Reflecting on that loss, which came in the middle of a three-game losing streak that nearly ruined Pittsburgh's playoff chances, the Steelers mention the same obstacles that have doomed most visitors to Indianapolis--the din inside the Dome, the speed of the Colts' defense and the frustration that sets in once quarterback Peyton Manning's high-scoring offense gets a lead.
To avoid that fate, the Steelers will rely on their running game, which has been the driving force in their five straight wins but which accounted for only 86 yards on the first trip to Indy. That means a large helping of the fleet Willie Parker, who ran for 1,202 yards and four touchdowns this year, complemented by the pounding of Bettis (368 yards, nine scores). The Steelers hope their ball-control approach will open up opportunities for the passing game as it did last Sunday. Against a Bengals defense that often committed eight and nine men to stopping the run, Ben Roethlisberger completed 14 of 19 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns. He, too, is a different player from six weeks ago, when the Indianapolis game marked his return from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, which had sidelined him for four games.
Overall, the offense is more confident than it has been in months, thanks largely to Bettis. On Dec. 11 the Steelers revived their postseason hopes with a 21-9 win over the Bears, in which Bettis plowed over a muddy, snow-covered field for 101 yards--his first 100-yard game of the season--and two TDs. "He was like the Jerome of old," says offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "He reminded us of who we are."
That is, a hard-nosed, grind-it-out team. "That was the first time we'd played with desperation," Bettis says. "It helped get us back to basics. We've been in that desperate mode ever since."
Over his 10 years in Pittsburgh, Bettis has been the player the Steelers have turned to when they were struggling--from his days as one of the league's premier backs (his 13,662 career yards rank fifth in NFL history) to his role now as a part-timer and designated short-yardage specialist. Said Bengals outside linebacker Brian Simmons after Sunday's game, "He's always been the guy that team feeds off."
Bettis's contributions have never been limited to the stat sheet. Wideout Hines Ward raves about the example Bettis set three seasons ago when he accepted his diminished role without complaint. This year Parker has become a more patient runner, mostly as a result of heeding Bettis's advice on deciphering presnap reads and anticipating where the holes will open. When fourth-year running back Verron Haynes was a rookie, he spent fall Friday afternoons at Bettis's house learning how to study film.
The Bus is happy to share his insights because he wants younger teammates to take on more responsibility in the offense and as leaders. "I've made a conscious effort to stay in the background this year," Bettis says. "It's important that those guys step up and push this team forward. It's important that I not get in the way. As a leader I have to know when to step back and when I have to stick my head in."
On Sunday, Bettis stuck his head in yet again. After running once for a yard in the first half, he had three key carries on Pittsburgh's first drive of the third quarter: two runs for first downs and a five-yarder for the touchdown that put the Steelers ahead 21-17. In the fourth quarter Bettis reeled off a vintage 25-yard run, rambling off right tackle, blasting through strong safety Kevin Kaesviharn 20 yards downfield and tumbling to the ground only after middle linebacker Odell Thurman pounced on his back.
As he trotted off the field at game's end, Bettis shouted to the Pittsburgh fans hovering above the visitors' tunnel. "This is our house," he chortled, flexing his biceps and nodding toward the faithful. Nearly an hour later he buttoned his charcoal-gray pinstriped suit and stuffed another souvenir--one of the Steelers' game balls--into his brown leather duffel bag. Ambling toward the team bus, he stressed that this victory, the Steelers' second in Cincinnati this season, only set them up for a tougher test. "We weren't interested in reminding [the Bengals] of who we are," said Bettis. "We only cared about getting the win. We know next week will be different. We'll have to be up to that challenge."
Are You Ready For REMATCH WEEKEND?
LAST MEETING: NOV. 28
Colts 26, Steelers 7
Photograph by Damian Strohmeyer
ONE MORE RIDE As he has for 10 seasons with Pittsburgh, the Bus gained the tough yards against Cincinnati with the game in the balance.
MARK COWAN/ICON SMI
STEPPING ASIDE Having led by example for years, Bettis is ready to pass the torch to Roethlisberger (7) and other young Steelers.