Throughout his storied time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which ultimately concluded with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, there was never any doubt just how great Jerome Bettis was year after year, especially in the prime of his career.
Fortunately for the Steelers though, the then-Los Angeles Rams in 1996 had some serious doubts, especially new head coach Rich Brooks, who was aiming to transition to a more pass-happy offense and wanted Bettis to transition to fullback.
After two years rushing for 1,000 yards as a rookie and a second-year player, Bettis took a step back in 1995, rushing for just 637 yards in the Rams’ first season in St. Louis, putting him at relative odds with Brooks and the organization.
All that led to the Steelers pouncing on the former Notre Dame star.
On April 20, 1996, Bettis was traded to the Steelers with a third-round pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, in exchange for the Steelers’ second-round pick and their fourth-round pick in the 1997 NFL Draft. The Rams gave Bettis the option of which team he wanted to be traded to between the Steelers and Houston Oilers. Obviously, Bettis chose the Steelers, resulting in a win-win for the Steelers and Oilers as Houston drafted Eddie George that year. Both running backs ultimately rushed for more than 10,000 yards in their careers.
As for the Rams, they traded the 1997 fourth-round pick to the Miami Dolphins as part of a package to move up from the original 121st overall slot to No. 112 overall, grabbing TCU offensive tackle Ryan Tucker, who played with the Rams from 1997-2001, winning a Super Bowl, before then spending 2002-2009 with the Cleveland Browns. The second round selection in the 1996 NFL Draft ended up being tight end Ernie Conwell, who spent 1996-2006 in the NFL with the Rams and New Orleans Saints, catching 203 passes for 2,188 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The trade turned out well for all parties involved, but on a cold Sunday afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium on Nov. 3, 1996, Bettis had something to say about the trade with his play on the field.
That day, Bill Cowher, Bettis and the Steelers welcomed Rich Brooks and the Rams into Three Rivers Stadium for a non-conference battle. It ended up being no contest as the Steelers hopped on “The Bus” and cruised to a 42-6 win, with Bettis putting up his seventh-consecutive 100-yard game that season — his first in Pittsburgh.
Right away, Bettis showed it was going to be a long, long day for the Rams.
On the first drive of the game, the Steelers force-fed the football to Bettis, who was out to make a statement against his former team, which gave up on him. Eight times Bettis carried the rock on the opening drive, bludgeoning the Rams’ defense throughout the drive.
After ripping off runs of 8 and 10 yards to get the Steelers deep into Rams’ territory, Steelers’ quarterback Mike Tomczak found wide receiver Andre Hastings for 10 yards, eventually setting up Bettis in the redzone.
The future Hall of Fame simply wouldn’t be denied the storybook opening to his first game against his old team. Two carries later, Bettis blasted into the end zone from 3 yards out, putting the Steelers up 7-0 early, sending a warning to the Rams early on about what exactly ws was going to happen on the ground in this one.
With a touchdown already in his back pocket and the Rams’ defense already gassed from the 11-play, 69-yard drive to open the game, Bettis came right back on the Steelers’ second possession and put the final nail in the coffin early.
Following a turnover on downs by the Rams and quarterback Tony Banks following a sack by Myron Bell on 4th and 6 near midfield, Bettis showed that the Rams were wrong in their assessment of him not being a gamebreaking running back, ripping off a 50-yard touchdown right up the gut on the first play from scrimmage following the turnover, making it 14-0 Steelers early.
Look at the way the big man moves here! Man, that’s so exciting to see all over again. Bettis was an absolute freak. They don’t make them like him anymore.
Following Bettis’s 50-yard romp, the Rams did a nice job responding with a field goal drive to make it 14-3, but this wasn’t a contest at all.
The two teams exchanged turnovers as Bettis fumbled the football away before Rod Woodson picked off Banks two plays later deep in St. Louis territory, setting up the first of two rushing touchdowns on the day for backup quarterback Kordell Stewart, this one from 7 yards out to make it 21-3.
With a big lead in the second quarter, the Steelers leaned heavily on Bettis, who continued to dish out punishment before the Steelers went into the half with the 21-3 lead.
In the second half, Bettis and the Steelers continued to roll right downhill against the Rams. Following a second St. Louis field goal to make it 21-6, Pittsburgh’s Eric Pegram responded with a 91-yard kickoff return for touchdown on the ensuing kickoff, cutting the wind right out of the Rams’ sails as the Steelers took a 28-6 lead.
The Rams then fumbled the football away on the ensuing kickoff, which then set up Stewart’s second rushing touchdown of the game, but not before Bettis continued to simply dominate the Rams on the ground.
In the end, the Steelers rushed for a then-franchise high five touchdowns on the ground as Pegram added a late score from 17 yards out, helping Pittsburgh seal the 42-6 win.
In the win, Bettis rushed 19 times for 129 yards and the two scores. Pegram added 53 yards and a score on nine carries, while Stewart added 12 yards and two scores on three carries.
Tomczak and Jim Miller combined to complete 10-of-15 passes for 100 yards, while Hastings led the way with four catches for 29 yards.
Defensively, the Steelers sacked Banks six times and picked him off twice, while holding star running back Lawrence Phillips and backup Harold Green Jr. to just 32 yards on 16 carries. Future Hall of Fame receiver Isaac Bruce added seven receptions for 108 yards in the loss.
Bell, Levon Kirkland, Brentson Buckner, Chad Brown, and Chris Oldman recorded one sack each, while Jerry Olsavsky and Oliver Gibson combined for half a sack each. Woodson picked off Banks once and Deon Figures added the second interception on the afternoon.