Roethlisberger had the answers
By Aaron Harlan, Globe Correspondent | November 1, 2004

PITTSBURGH -- Just wait, the conventional thinking went.

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Sure, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had sewn a dandy storyline in his first four NFL starts, but skeptics figured that hype would unravel against the New England defense -- a unit that's made the practice of unraveling quarterbacks more routine than a daily lunch break. But something unlikely happened yesterday when Roethlisberger braved the Patriots' blitz-and-confuse defense in a 34-20 Steelers win at Heinz Field. He didn't quiver. He didn't collapse. Instead, Roethlisberger looked poised and unflappable, completing 18 of 24 passes for 196 yards in a performance that may have helped the virtuoso rookie become the NFL's phenomenon du jour.

If nothing else, the outing validated Roethlisberger among any remaining doubters. After throwing two incompletions to start the game, he completed 14 of his next 15 passes, as the Steelers built a quick three-touchdown lead.

With help from running back Duce Staley, who bulled his way for 125 yards on 25 carries, the Steelers' passing game looked as sharp as the black ensemble Roethlisberger wore to his postgame media session.

"He did a good job, no question," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said.

And after the game, it was the Patriots -- not Roethlisberger --who were hit with a sudden trace of doubt. As New England's winning streak ended at 21, Roethlisberger, a No. 1 draft pick from Miami of Ohio, extended a streak of his own: He has won 18 starts in a row, dating to August of last season, when he was a college junior.

Against the Patriots' defense, which constantly blitzed the rookie but never sacked him, Roethlisberger showed the whole spectrum of skills. He threw under pressure. He showed both zip and touch. He even ducked tackles, once shaking Mike Vrabel from his backside while scrambling. Roethlisberger entered the game second in the AFC in quarterback rating. His rating yesterday: 126.4.

"It was definitely difficult," Roethlisberger said, though his actions screamed otherwise. "Their defense is very difficult. They're bringing people from all over the field."

Roethlisberger, though, always resisted the pressure. On a play that led to Pittsburgh's first touchdown, New England ran an all-out blitz. Steelers wideout Plaxico Burress was matched opposite cornerback Randall Gay, playing for injured Ty Law.

"He was just a lame duck out there," Burress said, smiling. "And we just kind of went after him."

The Patriots went after Roethlisberger, too. As the pocket collapsed, he glanced downfield at a tight end, then rainbowed a pass to Burress, who beat Gay by several steps. The pass hit Burress in stride, and lifted Pittsburgh to a 7-3 edge. It was a lead the Steelers never relinquished.

"It was an all-out blitz," Roethlisberger said, "and you have to give the line a lot of credit. For an all-out blitz, there shouldn't have been time like that. They gave me time to step up, I saw Plax running. And with Plax running downfield like that, you just want to throw it as far as you can."

Though his NFL career is only months old, Roethlisberger already has trained himself to deflect accolades. When asked about his 11 consecutive completions yesterday, he ended up talking about the defense. On his completion to Burress, he talked about the offensive line. When asked about his recent roll, he stressed the importance of, uh, good field position.

He's both mild-mannered and willing to listen. On the Steelers' fourth possession, as they churned through the New England red zone, Burress noticed a matchup with Asante Samuel -- a second-year defensive back Burress was certain he could beat.

"Just throw it over there," Burress told Roethlisberger before the play. "Put some air under it."

And so he did. Taking the snap from New England's 4-yard-line, Roethlisberger lobbed a pass to the right corner of the end zone, where Burress dived to the sideline and hauled it in.

Though Burress began the season as the lost receiver in Pittsburgh's run-first, Hines Ward-second offense, the lanky wideout has emerged in the last few weeks.

Yesterday, he caught three passes for 63 yards. His 47-yard touchdown catch was the longest scoring pass allowed by New England in more than two years.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.