Pittsburgh running backs Duce Staley, left, and Jerome Bettis combined for 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns in the regular season.
GENE J. PUSKAR Enlarge
PITTSBURGH - The first person Duce Staley called after being lured to the Pittsburgh Steelers by a $4 million free-agent signing bonus was Jerome Bettis.
The veteran running back has been answering the bell ever since.
The Ben Roethlisberger story has dominated the Pittsburgh sports scene, and for good reason, with the rookie quarterback reeling off 14 straight wins entering today's AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.
But the real story behind the Steelers' rise to the top of the standings one season removed from a 6-10 record has been the resurgence of Bettis, aka The Bus.
Pittsburgh finished 31st in rushing a year ago, averaging 93 yards per game. It could have been worse - there are 32 NFL teams, after all - but never had it been worse in the Steel City.
The Bus was supposedly on fumes. After six straight 1,000-yard seasons in a Pittsburgh uniform, Bettis had been nagged by injuries and had failed to reach that milestone for a second straight year.
So with coach Bill Cowher ready to turn back to the franchise's trademark smash-mouth football, the Steelers went shopping and bagged Staley, a fine runner whose role had diminished in Philadelphia and who was looking to jump-start his career.
Two star running backs. One football.
"You take this situation and put it on any other team, I don't think it works," Staley said.
It worked in Pittsburgh because Bettis was willing to let it work.
He stayed with the team, accepting a reduced $1 million salary for this season.
"To his credit, he wanted to be here," Cowher said of Bettis. "All he asked for was an opportunity to compete for the job. That's really about all I could promise him."
Staley, in whom much was invested, was named the regular-season starter coming out of training camp. He was as good as advertised, running for 707 yards in the Steelers' first seven games while Bettis looked as though he might set an NFL record for most touchdowns with the fewest touches and smallest rushing total. He carried 37 times for 64 yards, yet scored eight touchdowns as a short-yardage specialist.
The 12-year veteran's role was pretty well-defined in the opening game when he carried five times for one net yard, but three touchdowns.
Then, everything changed. Staley suffered a strained hamstring that was slow to respond to treatment. Bettis started six straight games and reeled off six 100-yard outings. After gaining 64 yards in his first seven games, he answered with 877 yards in his next eight.
Center Jeff Hartings feels that Staley was a godsend to the Steelers and, especially, to Bettis.
"Jerome has been in the league for a lot of years, with a lot of yards on those legs," Hartings said. "I think it kind of refreshed him to have Duce in there."
On Jan. 15, for the first time since early in the season, both were healthy and in uniform for the Steelers' AFC playoff game against the New York Jets.
This time Cowher went with Bettis and he responded with another triple-figure game - 27 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown.
But when the game went into overtime, Bettis remained on the sidelines.
"It was a cramp," he said. "It was a situation where we were off the field for so long because [the Jets] had two late drives [in regulation]. Then they had the ball first in overtime. I started to warm up to get ready to go out there and my right leg started to cramp up and it would not stop. It would not let me out there.
"There was no sense for me to go out there and do something stupid. I knew Duce was ready. I limped over to him and said, 'You got to go.' "
Staley did just that, carrying six times for 28 yards on the game-winning drive. He finished the game with 11 carries for 54 yards, a 4.9-yard average.
Bettis thought it was the best Staley had looked since recovering from the hamstring injury.
"He was quick, he was making the cuts," Bettis said. "That was great to see. I was so happy to see how he pounded it in there. It has been amazing that we have been able to be consistent and play off of each other. I think the whole team plays off of that. When you have two backs who can pound the football, it makes life a little easier when you have circumstances like that in a game."
Bettis and Staley agree that the Steelers' success on the ground this season - their 154 yards-per-game average led the AFC and was second in the entire NFL - came from burying the hatchet in the opposition and not in each other.
"You have two guys who understand the situation and the gravity of it and who do not want to derail the train because of egos," Bettis said. "I think it has worked better for us because neither of us has a big ego."
Said Staley: "The rotation has worked because of the relationship we have. [We are] two guys that love the ball, two guys that want the ball, two guys who are competitive. This wouldn't work on a lot of teams, but the most important thing is what this team needs."
Pittsburgh will need all it can get out of both backs with New England, the defending Super Bowl champion, paying a visit to Heinz Field today.
Both teams play a physical game and rely heavily on rushing yardage, ball control and time of possession.
The Patriots have an equally powerful 1-2 combination in Corey Dillon, who had 144 yards last weekend against Indianapolis, and backup Kevin Faulk. The two combined for 1,890 yards during the regular season while the Bettis-Staley duo racked up 1,771.
The Steelers are so deep at running back that Willie Parker, who led the team with a 5.8-yards-per-carry average, was inactive for last Saturday's game. Parker and Verron Haynes backed up Bettis and Staley to the tune of a combined 458 yards during the regular season.
"We have an unselfish group of backs that run hard," said Cowher, who is expected to go with Bettis as today's starter.
"Rightfully so," Staley said. "Jerome's had a great year."
So why did Staley's first phone call go to Bettis?
It was a matter of respect to the guy who now ranks as the NFL's fifth-leading rusher of all time with 13,294 yards.
And together they've banded behind a talented and injury-free offensive line to rekindle the respect in Pittsburgh's rushing attack.
"This is what we do," Bettis said. "We run the football. Pound it, pound it, and take it right to you."
One more good pounding and the Steelers could find themselves in the Super Bowl.
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.
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