Bus, Steelers run all over Eagles

PITTSBURGH -- To commemorate the silver anniversary of this city's fourth and final Super Bowl victory from the Pittsburgh Steelers' dynastic six-year stretch in the 1970s, the franchise brought back many of the heroes from the '79 title team.

So at halftime here on Sunday, the Terrible Towel-totin' partisans roared their approval as players like Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Mel Blount, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and others made their way, most of them slowly, to midfield.

But the throatiest cheers at Heinz Field, where the Steelers for a second consecutive week summarily dispatched a previously undefeated visiting opponent, were saved for an old favorite who wasn't even supposed to be such a significant part of these festivities. With their Little Duce (Staley) Coupe rendered inactive because of a hamstring strain suffered late in Friday's practice, the Steelers brought The Bus out of the garage.

And in a performance that was as gratifying for 12-year veteran tailback Jerome Bettis as it was appreciated by a loyal fan base that had witnessed most of his 43 previous efforts with 100 rushing yards, The Bus demonstrated he's still got some wheels.

Starting for the first time this season, after having been reduced by Staley's presence to a short-yardage and goal-line fantasy football novelty item, Bettis blasted for 149 yards on 33 carries in Pittsburgh's 27-3 dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles. On a day when the Steelers turned back the clock, the game culminating a weekend in which the Super Bowl XIV team members were feted, Bettis turned back the odometer and was only too happy afterwards to remind a legion of skeptics that there is still some tread left on his 32-year-old tires.

"Am I still the running back that I was when I was 25?" asked Bettis rhetorically, after a Pittsburgh victory that moved the Steelers to 7-1 and will almost certainly make them the NFL's top-rated team in this week's ESPN.com power poll. "No. But I'll tell you what, I am still a damned good running back. I can still get it done."

Because of Bettis, and a Pittsburgh offensive line that over the last two weeks has simply imposed its will on a couple highly regarded defensive front sevens, the Eagles' dreams of an unbeaten 2004 season are done as well. Whether it was Bettis, backup Verron Haynes or even rookie Willie Parker doing the damage, the Steelers blasted out 252 yards on the ground, Pittsburgh's best output since October 2001.

Even when they weren't pounding out yards between the tackles, the Steelers were very effective, their first touchdown in a 21-0 onslaught in the opening 20 minutes of the rout coming on wide receiver Hines Ward's 16-yard run on an end-around play that badly beat a Philadelphia blitz.

That bit of early gimmickry aside, Pittsburgh became the first franchise in NFL history to earn consecutive victories against two undefeated opponents that had at least six wins each, bludgeoning the Eagles in much the same manner as they had the New England Patriots here a week ago. And most of the time, the blunt instrument was Bettis, ousted from the starting job in training camp by Staley. The Bus had held since 1996.

Steelers coaches officially made the decision to deactivate the ailing Staley, desperate to play against his former Philadelphia teammates, two hours before kickoff. Staley, who is on pace for a career year in his debut campaign in Pittsburgh, tested his hamstring at about 10:15 Sunday morning, jogging from one sideline to the other and then back again. He then shook his head in frustration, retired to the locker room and slipped into his sweat clothes instead of his uniform.

Bettis pretty much knew by Saturday evening, though, that he would be the starter. And, he acknowledged, he relished the opportunity. Clearly, his teammates, who insisted there was no concern when coach Bill Cowher announced that Staley would not dress, relished it for Bettis as well.

The offensive line, which has played brilliantly the past two weeks, was crisp in coming off the ball early. On the game's initial series, Pittsburgh went 80 yards in 11 snaps, with 71 yards on the ground, including 34 from Bettis, who carried five times. On the second play of the contest, Bettis powered 16 yards through left guard, and it seemed that both he and his blockers delivered a message with that play.

"If the Eagles came here thinking they were going to catch a break because Duce couldn't go, well, we made sure they didn't think that way for long," said Ward, who, in addition to his 16-yard run also scored on a 20-yard catch on Pittsburgh's second possession. "To me, even with (rookie quarterback Ben) Roethlisberger here, and Duce here, this is still Bettis' team. I've always regarded it that way. I mean, the guy can still play, and everyone saw that today. It wasn't like they just handed him a job in training camp. Believe me, it doesn't happen that way. You earn your paycheck, man, and he's still earning his. Look, he is the ultimate Pittsburgh Steeler."

The sixth-leading rusher in league history, and deserving of Hall of Fame consideration after he retires, Bettis entered the intrastate showdown having registered just 52 carries for 129 yards in the first seven games. Only twice until Sunday had he posted more than 10 carries in a game. But he rushed 15 times for 65 yards in last week's victory over New England, helped the Steelers bleed time off the clock in the fourth quarter of another big, dominant win and convinced offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt that, if needed, he could play an expanded role.

Although he lost the competition with Staley for the starting job, Steelers coaches and many of his teammates insisted even before Sunday that Bettis looked good in training camp and that he still possessed the quick feet that have been his trademark for a dozen years. In scout-ese, Bettis possesses "little man's feet," rare quickness for a such a big man, and a knack for being able to redirect in the hole.

Those who consider Bettis simply a power back at 255 pounds, or a hammer with which to batter opponents, haven't been paying much attention. His quiet calling card for a long time now has been the innate skill for cutting without throttling down, for making subtle yet significant moves at the line of scrimmage. In Sunday's victory, Bettis demonstrated all of that and then some, right from the outset.

"It wasn't so much important to establish me as it was to establish the run in general, because that is our identity," said Bettis, who had just one carry for more than 8 yards in the first seven games but five such carries on Sunday. "For as long as I've been here, the goal has been to run the ball first, and then everything else comes off of that. We've always tried to dictate the tempo."

For the second week in a row, in that regard, the Pittsburgh offense was as reliable as a monotonous but magnificent metronome.

Pittsburgh rang up 25 first downs and 420 yards, averaged 5.5 yards on its 76 snaps and controlled the ball for 41:49.

Such dominance, combined with the early 21-0 lead, allowed the Steelers defense to all but ignore the Philadelphia running game, which netted a pitiful 23 yards, and harass the pocket. The Steelers defense, behind masterful calls by coordinator Dick LeBeau, sacked Donovan McNabb four times. Wide receiver Terrell Owens, who appeared to get in the face of McNabb at one point on the sideline, had just 53 yards on seven catches. There were no in-your-face theatrics from Owens, but Bettis didn't depart until he had called out some of his detractors.

He reminded the media that he had accepted a pretty dramatic salary reduction during the spring to stay in Pittsburgh, that when his role was laid out by coach Bill Cowher he did not chafe, that he still works as hard in practice as he always did.

"I'm not a charity case," Bettis said. "I'm here for a reason.'

And on Sunday, all the black and gold-clad zanies who arrived at Heinz Field in part to cheer for their heroes of old found out they have one more old hero still in uniform.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.