Jerome Bettis showed he has plenty left in his tank as the Steelers rolled over the Bucs
The NFL'S hottest player was also perhaps its hungriest one night last week. Jerome Bettis, mind you, does not like to leave dinner unattended for long. Still, there was a point that just had to be made before he dug into his turkey-and-provolone hoagie in a side booth at Peppi's on Pittsburgh's North Side. He didn't say it to rip any of the quarterbacks he has played alongside. He said it almost as a plaintive cry.
"Look at my career," the 255-pound Steelers running back said. "I've gained 10,000 yards now, and when did I ever have a quarterback to take the pressure off me? Emmitt Smith's one of the alltime great backs, deservedly so, but he had two other great players, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, with him in his prime. Every game I've ever played, I've faced eight in the box. Every game I've ever played, the defense has said, Stop Bettis and we win. Peel the onion back, really study it, and I don't think any back in NFL history has been in the situation I've been in and succeeded the way I have."
The man has a point. Since they acquired Bettis in a 1996 draft-day trade with the Rams, the Steelers have been 27th, 23rd, 29th, 26th, 29th and, this season, 30th in the NFL in passing. Pittsburgh's corresponding rankings in rushing: second, first, seventh, 10th, fourth and, this year, first. "So," Bettis went on, after taking a big bite of the hoagie, "it's pretty frustrating that I'm never, ever talked about as one of the great backs."
After a fourth consecutive command performance, he should be. In Pittsburgh's dominating 17-10 win over the Bucs in Tampa on Sunday, Bettis had his fourth 100-yard game in a row—17 carries for 143 yards, with back-breaking runs of 46 yards (for a touchdown) and 29 yards in the third quarter. He threw in a 32-yard second-quarter touchdown pass on a halfback option to tight end Jerame Tuman. Add an eight-yard reception, and Bettis, arguably the best big back in NFL history, had a nice, tidy 183-yard day while having a hand in both Steelers touchdowns.
Before this fall Bettis didn't seem to be the player he'd been. He'd had good seasons in 1999 and 2000, rushing for 1,091 and 1,341 yards, respectively, but he wasn't making people miss the way he used to. In 654 carries over those two seasons he had but one rush of more than 30 yards. Pittsburgh handed him a six-year, $30 million deal last March, but with only $6 million guaranteed, it was far from the contract of a superstar runner; in fact, it seemed a sort of gold-watch gesture. Then again, could you blame the Steelers? Bettis had been playing on a bad left knee, and last February he underwent arthroscopic surgery to clean out the debris around the knee.
In training camp this summer he felt like the old Bettis, the one who could elude tacklers, not just run them over. He had a nimble 48-yard run against the Bengals on Oct. 7, a 30-yard scamper against the Chiefs on Oct. 14 and the two long dashes against the Bucs. "I haven't seen him make cuts like this since 1996," coach Bill Cowher said after Sunday's win, Pittsburgh's fourth straight after a season-opening loss.
"The last two years," Bettis said, "I basically gained those yards on one leg. I never felt right. Now you watch me, and the telltale sign that I'm back is my feet. I make people miss." Moving quickly through the hole on the right side between the guard and the tackle during his touchdown gallop on Sunday, Bettis juked past linebacker Derrick Brooks, and in the last 30 yards Brooks couldn't gain on him. We forget that Bettis really can run.
We also nearly forgot what it's like for Pittsburgh to have a love affair with a Steeler. "This is football heaven," Bettis says. "They don't revere quarterbacks in this town. They revere defensive players and hard-hitting backs. I couldn't be in a better town."
Tim Carey, the Steelers' merchandise manager, says Bettis has had the top-selling jersey in the city for five years. "People in Pittsburgh see Jerome as an offensive player with a defensive mentality," Carey says.