- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' season, you might say it's in the bottom of the ninth, what with how tight things are at the top of the AFC. So when it came time to put away Sunday's win over the Bears, one Pittsburgh desperately needed in order to remain alive in a crowded chase for the wild card, the Steelers put the ball in the hands of the best closer in football.
If 2005 is indeed the closing act to Jerome Bettis's Hall of Fame career, the second half of Pittsburgh 21, Chicago 9 is, to this point, the signature scene. Running in relief of starter Willie Parker beginning with the Steelers' second possession of the third quarter, Bettis ran for 100 of his season-high 101 yards after halftime as Pittsburgh's offense buried the Bears' vaunted defense at snowy Heinz Field when and where it mattered most.
Bettis, 33, contemplated retirement after last year and there's a good chance he'll walk away at season's end. With the Steelers now at 8-5, the possibility of what may be Bettis's swan song concluding in late January or perhaps in February in his hometown of Detroit looks a lot better, the Steelers' having ended the Bears' eight-game winning streak and ending their three-game slide in the process.
"Enough can't be said about Jerome Bettis," receiver Hines Ward said. "He epitomizes what the Steelers are all about. People think he's down and out and he comes out and has a game like he had today."
Bettis closed the deal from a yard out in the second quarter, putting the Steelers ahead 14-3. In the third quarter, the Bus transformed into a virtual snowplow, pushing through the precipitation and running over Chicago's defense. Bettis scored the Steelers' final touchdown, from 5 yards, by blasting out of several would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone, among them star linebacker Brian Urlacher, who was powerless in his attempt to deny 255 pounds of momentum.
In a game between teams who play the same style of game -- power running, controlled passing, stifling defense -- Bettis and the Steelers reminded the Bears from where they got the blueprint. Bad-thumbed Ben Roethlisberger attempted 20 passes -- less than half of the career-high 41 he put up last week -- giving the Bears' speedy front four fewer opportunities to rush the passer. In the meantime, Chicago couldn't stop Pittsburgh from rushing the ball at will. Plain and simple, the big, bad Bears were beaten up on this day.
Pittsburgh had the ball for 22 minutes, 24 seconds of the second half and had its way, looking like, well, the '04 Steelers against a defense that had been hailed as the second coming of the '85 Bears. Not to be overlooked, Parker toughed out 68 yards on 21 carries for the game and started things off for the Steelers with a 45-yard catch-and-run on their second play from scrimmage. But it became apparent that the game was for all intents and purposes over when Bettis got rolling in the second half and run after run proceeded to punish any Bears who dared get in his way.
"You can't let a back like Jerome Bettis get going," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
Those final minutes, it was the kind of situation Bettis, and by extension the Steelers' offense, is made for. Pittsburgh is what you call an "if-when-then" team. As in, if the Steelers get a lead on you, and when they're running the ball the way they did Sunday, then they're just about impossible to deal with. Pittsburgh's maligned o-line has had to deal with a lot of criticism during the losing streak, having failed to produce 100 yards rushing in any of the past three games. Alas, the Steelers rediscovered their offensive identity, while the Bears' defense, which was without safety Mike Brown (out for perhaps several weeks with a calf injury) was hardly recognizable it was so uncharacteristically overmatched. The Bears were pushed around, point blank, and in Chicago that's plenty reason to push the panic button.
"When you go to hit somebody and they break that tackle," Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said, "give credit to the Pittsburgh Steelers running backs, because they were running through tackles. There's no magic."
Bettis' second-half surge was as much about wisdom as it was will. "My whole career," Bettis said, "I've had the bull's-eye on my back. The majority of my career, we've been a run-dominated football team. Going back to my first year in the league (1993) to the last year that I was a starter [two years ago], the emphasis has been on running the football. Defenses knew that we were going to run the football, and we found a way to do it. I understood how to work myself around the football field, around eight-man fronts. I would know there wasn't going to be a hole, there was only going to be a crack, and I needed to use my leverage to get 3 or 4 yards. It wasn't about breaking long runs.
"I understand the dynamics that go along with coming in in the second half and getting those tough yards, because that's what I've been able to do my whole career."
The 101 yards nearly doubled Bettis' previous season-high of 56, set in a Week 7 win over Cincinnati. He nearly matched that on a 39-yard jaunt inside of 3 minutes to go in the third quarter. It was Bettis' longest run since 2002.
Asked if he ran out of gas, Bettis quipped, "Well, I never had much gas. My job is to get all the yards I can get and live to fight another day. I was able to make the safety miss, but I knew I wasn't going to make it to the end zone.
"There's a big difference between me and Willie Parker. He's the home-run guy. I'm the bunt, get on base, manufacture a score guy."
Bettis hadn't carried more than nine times or gained more than 28 yards since he shut the door against the Bengals almost two months ago. He'd been bothered by bad knees this year and last month had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Sunday he took a blow to his left thigh and after the game had his leg heavily wrapped in ice. He was sore, but not sour. Banging bodies "is the fun part," he said as he dressed at his locker.
"I feel like crap," Bettis said as he limped his way out of the building. "But you know what? A win makes it feel a whole lot better. It's going to be a rough day tomorrow (Monday), but that's part of it. The fun part is being on the field, in that moment. It's priceless."
When it comes to putting teams away, Bettis, well, he's just money.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Steelers kept their playoff hopes alive, beating the Bears behind a vintage effort from Jerome Bettis.