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BILLS PLAN TO HOUND 'THE BUS'

First it was Ricky Williams. Then came Edgerrin James.

It seems the Buffalo Bills can't catch a break when it comes to facing opposing running backs. This week is no different.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are rolling into town Sunday led by Jerome "The Bus" Bettis.

"He makes their offense go, and obviously they have much better production offensively when they get The Bus untracked," said Bills coach Gregg Williams. "A big focal point for us is not letting him get cranked."

As much as the Steelers have tried to diversify their offense with more passing, it all comes back to Bettis and the power running game.

At 5-foot-11 and 255 pounds, Bettis likes to batter opponents with his physical running style.

Few know Bettis better than Williams. As a member of coaching staffs with the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans, Williams has seen plenty of Bettis since The Bus went to Pittsburgh in a 1996 draft-day trade with the St. Louis Rams.

Williams' Titans defenses did a great job against Bettis, holding him to an average of 46 yards in seven games.

"He's a downhill, off-tackle runner," Williams said. "Jerome is a guy who's really strong at the point of attack, and he gets stronger as the game gets on."

Bettis disputes that. He said it's more of a case that defenders get weaker from him pounding on them all day.

"That defense is maybe a step slower than they were in the first quarter or the first half, so it looks like you're going stronger because you're going the same speed and not wearing down," Bettis said. "That normally happens later in the game, third and fourth quarter, so it's important for us to get going early so that we can have the ability to wear on them like that."

The Bills' defense certainly wore down in its last two games, as the Saints' Williams and the Colts' James got the bulk of their yards after halftime.

The Saints and Colts also torched the Bills' defense through the air. While that is something the Bills are concerned about against the Steelers, stopping Bettis is priority No. 1.

"To do that, we have to get in the backfield and tackle him so he can't get a head of steam going," said defensive tackle Pat Williams. "Once he gets through the line and on our smaller guys, he's hard to bring down."

So what should the Bills' defensive backs do if they encounter Bettis at full speed?

"Just get him down by any means necessary," said strong safety Raion Hill. "Hit him low, trip him, jump on his back. Whatever it takes."

"You can't let him get his shoulders turned because if you do, he might bowl over you," added middle linebacker Kenyatta Wright. "If we can keep him from getting turned up field we have a chance to stop him."

Like Williams and James, Bettis could benefit from a Bills defense that has been weakened by injuries, cuts and free agent defections.

But Bettis is most pleased with not having to face Pro Bowl middle linebacker Sam Cowart, who was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list Wednesday.

"I'm not crying over here that he's not
playing," Bettis said. "I never wish injury on a player. I just hope he recovers 100 percent from it. But he's one of those guys where you kind of give a sigh of relief when you hear he's not playing."

Still, Bettis doesn't expect to have an easy day. The Bills will continue to crowd the line of scrimmage with seven- and eight-man fronts to try and take Bettis out of the offense.

It's no different than playing the Titans' defense, said Steelers coach Bill Cowher.

"It's always been a grind when we play Tennessee, and they're doing a lot of the same things," Cowher said. "(The Bills) bring the safety up, they can present a lot of different fronts and naturally it's designed to stop the running game and force you to beat them throwing. We're going to have our work cut out for us. It's going to be a challenge for us."

Bills defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said one person can't tackle Bettis. It takes a collective effort of players flying to the ball to make the stop.

The Jacksonville Jaguars used gang-tackling to hold Bettis to just 28 yards on 12 carries in a 21-3 season-opening win.

"The thing that you've got to do is fight Bettis because he's sure going to fight you," Gray said. "He's a real guy, he's a pro football player and he knows how to carry the football downhill."

Gray said the Bills can't afford to lay back and take Bettis' best shot. They have to deliver the first punch.

"You've got to attack," Gray said. "You can't sit back and read. I think that's been another one of our problems. We're trying to get guys to understand that this is an attack style of defense. You cannot read at the line of scrimmage because everybody will block you.

"By attacking up front, you stop the running lanes by making a new line of scrimmage in the backfield. That's the first step. Now the linebackers have got to run and attack, then the secondary. When all 11 guys are there around the ball, we can play the kind of defense we're capable of."
e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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