Rookie Ben Roethlisberger has been getting all the attention with his amazing run in Pittsburgh, but for the last two weeks it’s been veteran running back Jerome Bettis who has emerged as the Steelers’ unlikely star.
Bettis and the AFC North-leading Steelers shoot for their eighth straight win as they visit the Cincinnati Bengals.
Relegated to backup duty for most of the season, Bettis, 32, has regained his old form while starting for the injured Duce Staley, rushing for 252 yards in the last two games. In his first six games, Bettis was averaging fewer than two yards per carry as Pittsburgh used the NFL’s No. 6 career rusher almost exclusively in short-yardage situations.
“That’s what I’m here for—to be a relief pitcher, so to speak,” Bettis said after running for 103 yards in a 24-10 victory Sunday in Cleveland. “I am just doing my part. This team is special. We have interchangeable parts, where if someone is not able to go, the guy behinds him steps up.”
Bettis has 10 TDs—one shy of his career high set in 1996—and is just two yards behind Tony Dorsett’s 12,739 for fifth place on the all-time list.
Staley missed practice again Thursday with a sore hamstring that has kept him out of two games, meaning he is unlikely to play Sunday.
In Sunday’s win, Roethlisberger wasn’t spectacular, but efficient. He finished 10-of-16 for 134 yards, becoming the first rookie in NFL history to win his first seven starts.
During pregame warmups Sunday, Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter punched Browns running back William Green, bloodying his lower lip during their fight. Both were ejected before the opening kickoff. Porter apologized to his teammates Wednesday and promised never to repeat what he called a “stupid” mistake.
The Steelers are 8-1 for the first time since 1978 and have won seven straight games for the first time since 2001, whey they finished 13-3 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game. The last time Pittsburgh won eight consecutive regular-season games was in 1995, when they finished the season 11-5 and advanced to Super Bowl XXX.
The Bengals have won two straight and three of four, allowing just 13 points total in their last two games.
On Sunday, Carson Palmer led three consecutive scoring drives in the first half and completed 24 of 39 passes for 217 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions as the Bengals beat Washington 17-10.
“Weve won two in a row, and hopefully that will propel us against the division leaders,” said linebacker Kevin Hardy. “Pittsburgh is probably playing the best football in the league right now, but we’re pretty good, too. This is a great opportunity for us to see where we are as a team.”
On Wednesday, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson said he’s ready to celebrate a touchdown catch against the Steelers this weekend, jokingly asking fans to bring donations to cover the fine he’ll get.
“I need all fans to bring a dollar to the gate,” Johnson said playfully. “Don’t forget. There will be a bucket. Bring a dollar to the gate this week. Next week, I need everybody to bring a bottle of Pepto.”
That’s the last thing coach Marvin Lewis wanted to deal with heading into a make-or-break game. Informed of the receiver’s latest whimsy, Lewis sat silently for a few seconds.
“It’s not a wise thing,” Lewis finally said, with annoyance in his eyes. “It’s not his fine that’s as significant as if we get a penalty.”
After talking to the receiver about it before practice, Lewis tried to preclude any bulletin board material in Pittsburgh by saying Johnson’s comments should be ignored.
“He didn’t mean it that way at all,” Lewis said.
Johnson didn’t back down at all. He repeated his comments after practice, stressing he was just having fun and trying to build interest in the game.
“What was wrong with that?” he said, smiling.
Johnson was fined for three touchdown celebrations last season: $5,000 for a photo pose with teammate Peter Warrick in the end zone, $5,000 for a throat-slash gesture to the crowd, and $10,000 for holding up a preprinted sign that read: “Dear NFL: Please don’t fine me again.”