Jets caught off guard with HB option

The Steelers' dependence on running the ball set up a trick pass play, the turning point in their win over the Jets.

Updated: December 14, 2004, 2:57 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- After being a finesse passing team a year ago, Steelers coach Bill Cowher decided to go "Old School." He's opted to rely heavily on the run, known to many as "Marty Ball" after his close friend Marty Schottenheimer.

The benefits of Pittsburgh running 61 percent of the time paid was that it left the talented Jets defense off balanced Sunday in Heinz Field. Cowher knows Jets coach Herm Edwards studies the Steelers' tendencies. When they have an offensive tackle, Max Starks, report as an eligible receiver as an extra tight end, the Steelers usually run a goal-line counter run.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger paused when the play call -- 438 Counter -- echoed through his helmet. Roethlisberger looked at the play card on his wrist with amazement. That counter involved a Jerome Bettis pass. Early in the week, Bettis tried 438 Counter and his pass fell five yards short of tight end Jerame Tuman.

Jerome Bettis
Getty ImagesIn addition to throwing a TD, Bettis scored his 12th rushing TD of the season.
This time, Bettis was right on, hitting Tuman for a 10-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass that gave the Steelers control of a 17-6 victory over the Jets. At 12-1, the Steelers wrapped up the AFC North and are within a week or so of locking up a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.

"I looked at the wrist band and wondered if he called the wrong play," Roethlisberger said. "I told Jerome, 'Here's a chance to make a play.' "

Yet, from what he saw in practice, Roethlisberger could only hand off and hope Bettis didn't repeat his poor practice throw. Bettis' throw might have been so bad in practice that Cowher and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhut had second thoughts of whom they wanted throwing the halfback option. On Saturday in practice, Duce Staley threw the 438 Counter.

"I told Coach that it wasn't right," Bettis said of seeing Staley run 438 Counter. "We were laughing and joking."

The last laugh was on the Jets. They were in an aggressive defense for that counter play that featured four defensive linemen and four linebackers. All day, Edwards and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson mixed uncharacteristic alignments to foil the Steelers' running game. They used the 4-3. They used the 3-4. They used a 4-4. They used five-man fronts. They used six-man fronts.

The score was tied at 3-3 with 12:56 remaining in a physical, defensive game. The Steelers had a third-and-3 at the Jets' 10-yard line. After Roethlisberger handed off, 10 Jets defenders attacked trying to stop the run.

Wearing gloves on both hands, Bettis tried to get the best grip he could. He spotted Tuman behind Jets safety Reggie Tongue. During practice, Bettis threw a line drive. This time, he lofted a soft toss for a touchdown and a 10-3 lead. It was his third touchdown pass of his career.

"When we have Max at tight end, we always run the ball and we always run some type of counter," Bettis said. "The Jets were just playing our tendencies. They would expect the run, so it was a great call."

Of course, Roethlisberger joked after the play that Bettis really didn't see Tuman; he was just heaving up a pass. However, Bettis saw everything. As he's been all season, the Bus has been a dependable carrier when called upon.

Staley missed four games with a hamstring injury and he's still affected. In fact, Staley aggravated the hamstring injury on that game-winning scoring drive after a 21-yard gain on a screen pass. In came Bettis, who had only two carries before that play.

"I don't think I'm going to be a quarterback too many times," Bettis said. "Maybe one time a season."

Sunday, though, was a preview of coming attractions for the playoffs in Pittsburgh. The weather was cold. The game opened at 34 degrees with a windchill of 25, and started getting colder as the evening progressed. The Steelers are the league's most consistent running team even though the Jets' Curtis Martin is the league's leading rusher.

"We understood it was going to be a slugfest," Bettis said. "The bottom line was who was going to get the bigger punches late in the game. Both teams started to wear down a little bit."

Bettis took advantage of the Jets' fatigue. He aimed his 255-pound body at the aggressive Jets defense and tried to overpower them. On the three plays before the touchdown pass, Bettis had runs of 12, four and three yards while Staley received treatment for his hamstring. Once he found a seam, Jets defenders had trouble wrestling him to the ground. Bettis gave stiff arms when needed.

But here's a lesson to the Jets if they want to play these type of physical, smashmouth games. Don't get conservative. The Jets offense did following the Bettis touchdown pass and it cost them a chance to come back.

Chad Pennington and Martin responded with a drive that resulted in a third-and-14 from the Steelers' 27. Offensive coordinator Paul Hackett called -- as he does so often -- a short pass before the first-down marker. The ball went into the hands of tight end Anthony Becht for four yards. The Jets settled for a field goal and trailed, 10-6. Their fate was sealed.

On the next series, Roethlisberger, who struggled all day and was nine for 19 for 144 yards, came out throwing. Wide receiver Lee Mays made a double move on cornerback Terrell Buckley and caught a 46-yard pass that put the ball on the Jets' 17. Two plays later, out of Starks' jumbo set, Bettis turned the counter run into a 12-yard touchdown.

"They came back on that a little looser than they would have had we not burned them the first time," Bettis said. "That got the old legs churning once again."

When we have Max at tight end, we always run the ball and we always run some type of counter. The Jets were just playing our tendencies. They would expect the run, so it was a great call.
Steelers RB Jerome Bettis

Cold weather playoff games aren't always pretty and this was a preview. Roethlisberger struggled but made enough big plays down the stretch to win. Pennington wasn't good enough. He was a little late in making some throws and in some of his decisions. He completed 17 of 31 for 189 yards and three interceptions. Roethlisberger did a much better job of getting the ball to the sidelines when needed.

"Chad did OK," Edwards said. "He made some good throws. The last one got away from him a little high. When you turn the ball over three times, and they turn the ball over twice at the end of the day with the fouls, it hurts. We can not self destruct like that."

The Jets were their own worst enemy. They had 12 first-half penalties for 84 yards. That's not playoff football. Some were unexplainable. Pennington had two delay of game penalties. Tight ends and wide receivers were called for three holding penalties, one that robbed LaMont Jordan of a 30-yard run. There were two inexcusable false starts.

The Steelers took advantage of some of the over-aggressiveness of the Jets' secondary and drew two interference calls against Buckley and an illegal contact against Donnie Abraham.

"There is no one individual who you can point a finger and say, 'this is the reason why we lost,' " Martin said. "We all makes mistakes sometimes and we all don't play our best games sometimes. That's when other people have to step up and nobody stepped up and made up for the mistakes that we had today."

The player who stepped up the most was Bettis. His quarterback rating was 147.9. Roethlisberger and Pennington each had 33.6. That's cold-weather football. It works when you run the ball as well as the Steelers.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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