Bettis replaces Zereoue, but Cowher downplays move

Updated: October 21, 2003, 7:04 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Jerome Bettis will make his first start of the season Sunday against St. Louis as the Pittsburgh Steelers try to jump start their struggling running game and end a three-game losing streak.

Coach Bill Cowher downplayed the move Tuesday because Bettis and Amos Zereoue have split time in recent weeks. Bettis, the No. 10 rusher in NFL history, had 34 yards on 14 carries in a 17-14 loss at Denver on Oct. 12, while Zereoue had 15 yards on 10 carries.

"This is not about one player," Cowher said. "This is not about one guy being put in to give us a spark. ... This is not about any one player trying to pick up the team or about sending any message at all. This is where we are this week. It doesn't mean it couldn't change next week."

What hasn't changed so far is the Steelers' inability to run the ball, no matter which running back was playing. Bettis, who lost his starting job to Zereoue during training camp, has 128 yards on 44 carries in six games and Zereoue has 277 yards on 83 carries.

Their numbers are even worse during the losing streak: Zereoue has 105 yards on 41 carries, a 2.6 average, and Bettis has 48 yards on 20 carries.

As a result, the Steelers (2-4) are 28th in rushing with an average of 83.3 yards -- a remarkably low ranking for a team that historically builds its offense around a power running game. Their 3.1 yards per carry average is down by more than a yard since last season.

Only two years ago, the Steelers easily led the league in rushing, and they have never finished lower than No. 18 since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

Bringing back Bettis isn't the only alteration Cowher will make as the Steelers attempt to halt their longest losing streak since they twice dropped three straight in 2000.

Alan Faneca, an All-Pro guard the last two seasons, is expected to stay at left tackle as Marvel Smith continues to rest his ailing shoulder. Smith has played only a few downs in the last three games.

"Marvel has tried to play through it but, at this point, he cannot protect himself," Cowher said.

Faneca moved to tackle for the first time since high school for the Denver game, supposedly a one-time move to give Smith an extra week off. Faneca also played guard against the Broncos as offensive line coach Russ Grimm used five linemen at multiple positions in an effort to find a cohesive unit.

Grimm won't have that kind of flexibility against the Rams (4-2). Offensive tackle Mathias Nkwenti (back) will be out a minimum of six weeks after learning Tuesday he needs surgery to remove a disk fragment in his lower back that is pressing on a nerve.

Because of the injuries, Keydrick Vincent will likely start at left guard -- he hadn't played all season until the Denver game -- with Jeff Hartings at center, Kendall Simmons at right guard and Todd Fordham returning to right tackle. Fordham played the least of all the linemen in Denver.

"If you are healthy these days, you play," Cowher said.

If there are any more injuries or Cowher isn't happy with the line play, Chukky Okobi will probably take over at center, with Hartings moving to guard. Jerame Tuman is expected to start at tight end for Jay Riemersma, who sprained a medial collateral knee ligament during practice Monday and was called "very doubtful" by Cowher.

But while the Steelers are off to their worst six-game start during Cowher's 12 seasons as coach, they are only a game behind AFC North leader Baltimore (3-3). The Steelers gained ground during their bye week as the Ravens lost to Cincinnati and the previously winless Chargers upset the Browns (3-4).

"I think we all need to pick up our games, players and coaches, and recognize the situation we are in," Cowher said. "It's a 10-game season. We're one game out of first place ... (but) the further along the season goes, the less margin for error you have."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index