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LATROBE, PA. Staley's knee injury has Bettis warming up 'The Bus'



Published: Sat, August 6, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The 33-year-old tailback may get plenty of early-season action.

LATROBE, Pa. (AP) -- So much for Jerome Bettis' summer vacation.

Bettis, starting his 10th season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, expected to take it easy early this season. Let Duce Staley take most of the carries as the No. 1 running back. Stay fresh for the playoffs.

"It would be difficult, at this stage of my career, to start Week 1 and go through Week 16 and still be as effective as I was in Week 1," Bettis said. "I wouldn't be able to finish and, in this business, it's not how you start but how you finish."

So much for planning. Less than a week into training camp, Staley is hurting again, missing a third consecutive day of practice Friday with right knee irritation. Staley needed fluid drained from his right knee after just one full day of practice, a condition that sometimes can require arthroscopic surgery.

Coach Bill Cowher said Staley could return early next week. But the Steelers similarly downplayed a midseason hamstring injury a year ago that resulted in Staley carrying only 41 times the rest of the season after he averaged 101 yards through seven games.

Concern

Staley's latest setback concerns Bettis, if only because it occurred so early in camp.

"Yeah, you worry about it because he's the guy," Bettis said Friday. "You're concerned, but I don't think it's time to throw the red flag up. But I think you definitely pay more attention to it."

If Staley somehow can't start the season -- and, for now, the Steelers don't seem to be worrying about that -- Bettis likely would split time with Willie Parker, a training camp find a year ago.

Bettis is third in NFL career carries with 3,369, trailing only Emmitt Smith (4,409) and Walter Payton (3,838), and fifth in career rushing with 13,294 yards. But he all but said he can't make nearly 300 carries as he did last year. Despite carrying only 37 times in the first six games, he finished with 250 attempts -- his most in four seasons -- and had 44 more in two playoff games.

Recuperating

For a 33-year-old running back who weighed retiring during the offseason partly because of recurring leg pain, it's unrealistic to expect Bettis to carry such a load again. He is recuperating from an injury of his own, a partially torn quadriceps tendon that caused him discomfort for several months after the season ended.

"After the season, I got it looked at and they saw swelling in there and when I came back in March, we took another look at it because it never really got any better," he said. "They found out there was a little tear, and we had to work through that. But I feel good now."

Staying out of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's way might help keep him that way. The two accidentally bumped knees during practice Thursday, causing a bruise on Roethlisberger's calf that forced him to skip a few plays.

"Ben came to me at dinner and said we banged knees ... and I didn't even feel it," Bettis said. "That's the weirdest thing. I had no clue what he was talking about."

Roethlisberger laughed off the injury and the collision with the 255-pound Bettis, saying, "I'm just a little speed bump to Jerome."

Keeping both their second-year quarterback and 13th-year running back healthy is important to a team that relies on the run like no other NFL team. The Steelers had 618 carries to their opponents' 357 a season ago, a ratio that would be difficult to maintain if either Staley or Bettis gets hurt.

"It depends on Duce's health," Bettis said. "Hopefully, he'll be ready to go and I can be his biggest cheerleader and supporting him and backing him up. But if it calls for me to go out there and carry the load, I'll put the hard hat on and go back to doing what I've been doing for my whole career."




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