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Bettis down _ and out _ on third downs

November 6, 1997

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Just when the Pittsburgh Steelers would want to get the ball into Jerome Bettis’ hands, he is ...

Sitting down?

Third down. The Bus stops here.

The Steelers, rather than giving the ball to Bettis on third-and-short situations, are relying on a formation that calls for an extra receiver and rookie running back George Jones to enter the game _ and Bettis leave.

Such a plan seems perplexing not just in its creation but its implementation. Why sit down one of the NFL’s leading rushers so a rookie who otherwise rarely sees the ball can play?

Bettis leads the Steelers (6-3) with 1,023 yards, while Jones has only 30 carries for 103 yards.

``They want to get some speed out there,″ said Bettis, who reached 1,000 yards faster than any runner in team history. ``We’ve been like that for a couple of years now. It’s been working, so nobody has noticed it.″

At least they didn’t until the Steelers went only 1-for-8 on third down situations of 6 yards or fewer in a 13-10 loss Monday in Kansas City.

Coach Bill Cowher pinned much of the blame for the loss on the third-down failures, and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey acknowledged Wednesday he is reassessing the makeup of the third-down unit.

``It’s something we’re looking at,″ Gailey said. ``You’re always revaluating what you do.″

Still, Bettis isn’t one of the formation’s critics _ at least for now.

``It’s something the coaches want to do and, if it works, I’m all for it,″ Bettis said. ``Sometimes they (the defense) want to stack the line of scrimmage and it can be hard to get two yards. I don’t feel like I have to be in there all of the time.″

And, the 260-pound Bettis said, he likes taking a down off every couple of plays, if only because of the punishment he regularly sustains. His 218 carries rank him behind only Denver’s Terrell Davis (236 carries) in the AFC.

``Sometimes I need to come out,″ Bettis said. ``It helps me more than it hurts me. As long as we keep winning, I don’t know that we need to quit doing it.″

Quarterback Kordell Stewart said few made mention of Bettis’ absence on third down until the Steelers broke down Monday.

``There’s no reason to panic or make drastic changes,″ Stewart said. ``It’s just a matter of not making little mistakes. Until (Monday), we were leading the NFL in third-down conversions.″

Despite their failures Monday, the Steelers still have a 45 percent success rate on third down.

``If it had been a constant problem, we’d do something about it,″ Cowher said. ``We look at situations constantly. But it’s a situation that if you make it (on third down), nobody says anything about it, but if you don’t make it, people wonder why you didn’t use other people.

``We look at it and assess it to try to keep people off balance and keep them guessing. I’d like to think that what happened Monday won’t happen on a regular basis.″