OWINGS MILLS, Md. The Bus is out of the shop.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, perhaps the black and gold’s most lethal offensive weapon, will play for the first time in five games in tomorrow’s AFC divisional playoff against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.
Bettis, a 5-foot-11, 255-pound ball of rolling thunder, has been sidelined with a groin injury. Before the injury, Bettis rushed for 1,072 yards on 225 carries and four touchdowns.
Bettis, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, says he feels fine and is ready to crank it up against Baltimore (11-6). That’s not good for the Ravens. Since joining the Steelers (13-3) in 1996, Bettis has rushed for 7,785 yards, second to Tennessee’s Eddie George over that span.
“I’ve been playing for a long time, and the little rust that I will have I figure will be gone in the first couple of snaps,” Bettis said. “There’s not a situation where I’m limited to 10 carries. No, I’m ready to rock.”
The Ravens’ stingy defense knows the Bus is pulling up to the station. The Ravens boast the NFL’s second-best defense against the run: 88.2 yards a game and 3.4 yards per rush.
Bettis doesn’t garner the glory or publicity that other backs get because of his running style. The Bus usually doesn’t break 40-yard runs. What he does is hit defenses with physical, punishing effort.
Just consider other big backs who have played before Bettis. Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back ever, was 6-2, 228. Franco Harris was 6-2, 225. John Riggins was 6-2, 240. O.J. Simpson was 6-1, 212. Bettis isn’t as tall as those other great backs, but he’s nearly 20 pounds heavier.
“He is a big boy,” said Ravens Pro Bowl safety Rod Woodson. “But so is [backup] Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala. The difference between those two guys is that Jerome is more patient. Jerome will wait for the hole to open up, where Fu will take off.”
When Bettis was out, the 6-foot, 255-pound Ma’afala did a yeoman’s job, gaining 453 yards with three touchdowns on 120 carries in five starts. Amos Zereoue, the Steelers’ reserve scat back, rushed for 441 yards on 85 carries this season.
Bettis, who ranks second on the Steelers’ all-time rushing list, became just the 14th player in NFL history to rush for more than 10,000 yards earlier this season. The runaway Bus is currently the NFL’s 12th all-time rusher with 10,876 yards and needs 361 to pass Simpson for 11th place on the all-time list.
At 29, Bettis figures to have at least three more good seasons. If Bettis rushes for around 1,300 yards each season, he is projected to end his career as the league’s fourth-most prolific rusher behind Walter Payton (16,726 yards), Emmitt Smith (16,187) and Barry Sanders (15,269).
“Either you can say that he lost his timing or you can say that he’s fresh and ready to go,” said Tony Siragusa, the Ravens’ massive run-stopping defensive tackle, on the effect Bettis will have after sitting out.
“I’m betting that his legs are going to be fresh, and he’s going to be nice and souped up, lubed up and ready to roll,” Siragusa said. “We’ll probably see his best game.”
In the Ravens’ 13-10 victory at Pittsburgh on Nov. 4, Bettis gained 91 yards on 23 carries and almost snapped Baltimore’s 44-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Bettis sat out Pittsburgh’s convincing 26-21 win at Baltimore on Dec. 16. Behind Bettis, the Steelers have the league’s top rushing attack this season, averaging 173.4 yards.
Many are calling the Bettis acquisition the best move in the Steelers’ storied history. Bettis joined Pittsburgh on a draft-day trade that sent a second-rounder and a fourth-round selection to the St. Louis Rams for the Bus in 1996.
“While we were racking up wins, people always questioned could we get it done against better competition,” Bettis said of the Steelers’ magic season. “I think we proved that, but we have a lot more to prove this game. [The Ravens] don’t like us, and we don’t like them.”