Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cowher didn't give Jerome Bettis a single start at tailback during the regular season when Duce Staley was healthy and available to play. But Bettis nevertheless finished as the club's leading rusher, and Cowher is prepared to give him his second straight start in the playoffs.
The coach said during his news conference Tuesday that he "probably" will go with Bettis ahead of Staley in Sunday's AFC title game against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field, but Staley is likely to play more than he did in last weekend's triumph over the New York Jets.
Bettis lost a fourth-quarter fumble against the Jets but ran for 101 yards on 27 carries. It was his seventh 100-yard rushing performance in seven starts this season, the first six of which came when Staley was nursing a hamstring injury during the regular season. Staley didn't get a carry against the Jets until late in the third quarter. But he provided a boost by rushing for 54 yards on 11 carries, including 28 yards on six attempts during the Steelers' overtime drive to kicker Jeff Reed's winning field goal.
The Pittsburgh offense provides a far different sort of test for the New England defense than the revved-up passing game of the Indianapolis Colts did last weekend. The Patriots provided a remarkable show of defensive dominance by limiting the Colts to a field goal even while playing without their two starting cornerbacks (Ty Law and Tyrone Poole) and top defensive lineman (Richard Seymour) because of the injuries, and with the sport's rules having been tilted in favor of Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and his receivers based in large part on their defeat at New England in last season's AFC championship game.
But this game won't be a chess match for Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, a matter of maneuvering all the Xs and Os into the right spots to befuddle a fancy passing offense yet again. This will be a test of strength and willpower. The Steelers' offensive approach is to use their running game to trample an opponent if possible, and mix in some throwing by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Only if that doesn't work does Pittsburgh put the game into Roethlisberger's hands.
"Our M.O. all year is to try to play mistake-free football and take away the big play on defense," Cowher said Tuesday. "Somewhere in there, you'd like to think we'll have some guys that can make plays. We've got to still stay patient as a football team. . . . When you have two good football teams playing, some of the mistakes can be very glaring and good football teams have a way of capitalizing."
When the Steelers ended New England's league-record winning streak at 21 games with a 34-20 victory over the Patriots at Heinz Field on Halloween, Pittsburgh rushed for 221 yards -- 125 by Staley. Roethlisberger chipped in with two touchdown passes in an 18-for-24, 196-yard passing day. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Pittsburgh cornerback Deshea Townsend, and the Steelers jumped to a 21-3 lead in the first quarter.
But now, Roethlisberger is coming off a two-interception struggle against the Jets, and Cowher said there's no doubt in his mind that his rookie quarterback will see some new pass-defense wrinkles from the Patriots.
"He'll see something different," Cowher said. "You can take that to the bank. . . . You just have to go out there and execute. You have to trust what you see, and there are going to be times when you are going to get one-on-one matchups. . . . We wouldn't be sitting here today if it weren't for him doing some of the things that he has done all year, and let's not lose sight of that. You want to just sit there and look at his last game and analyze and overanalyze. I'm not going to over-analyze it. Certainly, there are some choices that he made that I'm sure he would like to have back, for all of us. It was what it was. We overcame it, and we are moving on to this week. We are not going to lose our approach that has gotten us to where we are today."
The Patriots managed only five rushing yards in the teams' October meeting. But they were playing without tailback Corey Dillon because of a thigh injury, and Cowher said the Steelers realize that things will be far different with Dillon in the lineup. He ran for 144 yards against the Colts.
"You have to account for him," Cowher said. "He is a great back that we know all too well from playing against him during his years in Cincinnati. We have a lot of respect for him. He just gives them another weapon. Tom Brady is a playoff-type quarterback that is going to find ways to get it done. They have all of their receivers healthy. They have a very, very explosive offense. They don't beat themselves. They can present you with different challenges. . . . They may spread it out. They may come in and just try to hammer it with Corey. I think the biggest thing for us is to be able to be flexible enough to see what their approach is, and be able to have something to counter that."
Moss Moving On?
It is the time of the year when front-office executives from teams around the league begin to wonder if the Minnesota Vikings are going to trade wide receiver Randy Moss.
The Miami Dolphins inquired about Moss last offseason but were rebuffed. Now NFL people privately are speculating that the Vikings could be willing to part with Moss after his latest string of transgressions, including walking off the field with two seconds remaining in a loss to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field to close the regular season and pretending to pull down his pants to moon the Lambeau Field crowd during a touchdown celebration in a first-round playoff triumph at Green Bay.
There are no salary-cap impediments to trading Moss, who has four seasons remaining on a four-year, $75-million contract extension signed in 2001. The deal included an $18 million signing bonus. The Vikings would save $500,000 on next season's cap by trading Moss. He counts $9.5 million against the Vikings' salary cap next season if he stays with the club, and $9 million against their cap if he's traded. Trading Moss would free the Vikings of having to pay the $36.5 million that he's owed during the remainder of his contract, including $7.25 million next season.
It's unclear if any team would be willing to absorb that contract, surrender the multiple first-round draft picks that the Vikings likely would be seeking and accept all the baggage that Moss brings. He's coming off an injury-filled season in which he had only 49 catches for 767 yards (but still managed to score 13 touchdowns).
The speculation focuses on the Arizona Cardinals, coached by former Vikings coach Dennis Green, and Baltimore Ravens, coached by former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick. Billick worked with Moss for only one season in Minnesota. But the Ravens probably make more sense. They remain in desperate need of help at wide receiver after failing in their bid last offseason to land Terrell Owens.
Green worked with Moss much longer but the Cardinals are well-stocked at receiver, with Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson. The Redskins also are viewed as a prospective contender because they need help at wideout and usually seem to be involved when a high-profile player is available. . . .
The Denver Broncos gave agent Drew Rosenhaus permission to seek a trade for running back Reuben Droughns. Droughns inherited the Broncos' featured-runner job from Quentin Griffin during the season but could lose it next season to Tatum Bell. Rosenhaus knows how to get a tailback out of Denver. He also represents Clinton Portis, the tailback traded from the Broncos to the Redskins last offseason. . . .
Miami, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Carolina are among the teams lining up to pursue tailback Travis Henry, who has been granted permission by the Buffalo Bills to seek a trade. Trades cannot be completed until March. . . .
The Vikings could trade one of their tailbacks -- Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith or Mewelde Moore -- in the offseason. All three are under contract for next season, and the Vikings want to have one centerpiece runner after rotating the duty among the three this season. The club likely will retain Moe Williams to serve as the third-down back.
Linehan in Demand
The Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars moved quickly after the Vikings' season ended to request and receive permission to interview offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, whose contract with Minnesota expires at the end of the month. Linehan traveled to South Florida on Tuesday to meet today with new Dolphins coach Nick Saban. He likely will huddle with Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio on Thursday. The Vikings would like to retain Linehan but probably will be far outbid by the Dolphins and Jaguars.
Del Rio is scheduled to interview another popular offensive-coordinator candidate, New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy, on Friday. McCarthy first will interview with the Detroit Lions today The Lions also are readying to interview Ted Tollner, San Francisco's offensive coordinator. . . .
Del Rio appears close to hiring former Dallas Cowboys head coach Dave Campo, the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator the past two seasons, to replace Steve Shafer, who was fired as the Jaguars' assistant head coach and assistant secondary coach. . . .
The Browns are doing little in their head-coaching search this week, with their apparent front-runner (Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel) and two of their other candidates (Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm and Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress) unavailable because their teams still are in the playoffs. One person familiar with the Browns' search said that former Dolphins interim coach Jim Bates appears to be second on the club's wish list and Grimm third, after Crennel. . . .
The 49ers and Seattle Seahawks appear interested in Jeff Diamond, a former executive with the Vikings and Tennessee Titans. The Seahawks just fired team president Bob Whitsitt and lost Ted Thompson, their vice president of football operations who became the Green Bay Packers' general manager. The 49ers need a front-office chief to go with new coach Mike Nolan. Former 49ers guard Randy Cross also has been mentioned among the club's GM possibilities. Cross served as an unofficial adviser to co-owner John York during the team's coaching search, which concluded with Nolan signing a five-year contract Tuesday. He is to be formally introduced today. . . .
Kansas City Chief Coach Dick Vermeil decided this week not to make any changes to his defensive coaching staff. That means that the Chiefs presumably will finally take the approach of trying to acquire better players to upgrade the unit, something they probably should have done last offseason. Instead, they stuck with basically the same group of players and pinned their hopes for improvement on the hiring of defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. . . .
The Jets announced today that offensive coordinator Paul Hackett had resigned. It had seemed virtually certain since late in the regular season that Hackett would be dismissed, and Coach Herman Edwards and General Manager Terry Bradway declined to clarify his status in recent days. The team quietly had begun to make inquiries about possible replacements. . . .
Cincinnati promoted Chuck Bresnahan to defensive coordinator today. The move had been expected since Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis dismissed Leslie Frazier as his defensive coordinator after the regular season. Bresnahan, formerly Oakland's defensive coordinator, served as a defensive assistant for the Bengals this season.