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Steelers hope the pass negates any Titans plans to stop the run

No one wants to contribute to Steelers’ victories more than little-used running back Jerome Bettis (80 yards in three games). But while he’s standing by idly on the Heinz Field sideline today watching Amos Zereoue start the game against the Tennessee Titans and play most of the first half, Bettis should know he already has had a profound effect on the proceedings.

The Titans, who have the top run defense in the NFL, spent the better part of last week watching tape of the Steelers’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals in which Bettis and Zereoue took their teammates on their backs and ran them into a 17-10 victory.

If Titans coach Jeff Fisher doesn’t instruct strong safety Tank Williams to drift toward the line of scrimmage and be wary of the Steelers’ running game, Fisher should give back half of his salary.

Two of the AFC’s elite teams meet for the 12th time in the past seven seasons in a game that will identify one team as a Super Bowl contender and the other as a pretender with a lot of work to do. A victory by the Steelers (2-1) might vault them all alone into first place in the AFC North, with the co-leading Baltimore Ravens playing host to the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs.

The Titans have won 9 of 11 games against the Steelers, largely by stopping what the Steelers used to do best — run the football. In two victories last season, the Steelers totaled 112 yards on 35 carries (81 on 34, if you throw out Zereoue’s 31-yard touchdown run in the playoff game).

Fisher still respects the Steelers’ run game, however, and he believes that it’s the best way to win the game.

Enter Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox and his bevy of pass catchers Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El and Jay Riemersma, who will see one-on-one coverage on the flanks and in the middle of the field for at least part of the game.

“That’s my favorite coverage,” Burress said.

If history holds, the Steelers must throw to beat the Titans, and — despite what happened in Cincinnati — that’s what they do best.

“We feel very comfortable throwing the ball,” said coach Bill Cowher, whose team is tied with the Washington Redskins for the No. 2 passing game in the NFL.

Cowher said he expects to see Williams or free safety Lance Schulters lined up as the dreaded eighth man in the box.

“They’re going to bring the safety down and blitz us,” said Cowher, who added that Williams and Schulters “play like linebackers.”

That may open up the passing game, forcing Fisher to keep his safeties on a string like two powerful yo-yos, dropping them back into pass coverage if Maddox has a hot hand.

“It will become more of a chess match than anything else, trying to guess when you’re going to have the opportunity to throw it down the field,” Cowher said. “As opposed to being able to take what they give you and, maybe, pop a run when they do give you two high looks.

“Certainly, the one thing you have to be able to do is you have to be able to run the ball when they move the safeties back and they start lining up 10-12 yards deep.”

Enter Zereoue and Bettis, who totaled 128 rushing yards against the Bengals.

That’s the balanced offense Cowher and coordinator Mike Mularkey are seeking. They found it in Cincinnati. If it can re-emerge against the 2-1 Titans, the Steelers will be proud and eager to take it into the rest of the season.


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