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Steelers soar with rookie QB

The man they call Big Ben has led the Steelers to wins in his first four NFL starts.

By ROGER MILLS
Published October 29, 2004

It stands prominently across the London skyline, a throwback to a time when kings ruled with a mighty hand and a sharp sword.

And every hour, it chimes as a chilling reminder to his subjects.

Well, Pittsburgh is a long way across the Atlantic, but the Steel City has its own version of Big Ben.

Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, at 6-foot-5, 241 pounds looks like an American version of the famous tower, and he's standing tall over the NFL.

The third quarterback taken in the draft, Roethlisberger is playing with unexpected poise and uncanny mobility. So far, Roethlisberger, 22, has made plays with his arm and his legs and and is carrying himself with a maturity that defies his rookie status.

"He's the best young prospect I've seen in 10 or 12 years, what I've seen so far," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said before losing 24-20 to the Steelers. "Now, it's a little early into the evaluation, but this guy looks like to me, hey, I just said it, the best young prospect I've seen in a long time. I haven't seen them all. But this guy has come in and done a remarkable job for Pittsburgh. I would credit their coaching staff for doing a good job getting the guy ready to go. He's got a big arm; he's mobile; he can throw on the run; he's very good in the shotgun, that's what he did in college; he's hard to tackle at 250 pounds. It looks like they have a good player there for a long time."

The early evidence supports that claim. Since taking over for injured Tommy Maddox in the second game of the season, Roethlisberger has gone on to win his first four starts and looks nothing like a young man who was playing college football one year ago.

The four straight wins to start a career ties Phil Simms for the second longest winning streak by a rookie quarterback. Former Steeler Mike Kruczek holds the record with six. Roethlisberger will try to make it five in a row Sunday at home against the unbeaten Patriots.

"The key for Roethlisberger or any quarterback is to have the ability to make the difference between winning and losing, and winning championships," said former quarterback Terry Bradshaw, a Hall of Famer who played 14 seasons with the Steelers. "It looks like Roethlisberger may be that quarterback. I'm very excited about the fact it looks like the Steelers have someone they can depend on to lead the team for the next 14 years."

Scouts generally accepted that Roethlisberger, who set Miami of Ohio records for yards (10,829) and touchdowns (84), had the arm to play in the NFL. On draft day, Roethlisberger was the 11th player selected, taken behind quarterbacks Eli Manning (first overall) and Philip Rivers (fourth).

What has surprised the Steelers, and opposing NFL defenses, is Roethlisberger's ability to move and throw.

He burned the Bengals, Browns and Cowboys by making clutch throws while out of the pocket and seems quite at home in the open field.

Unlike his British namesake, this Big Ben can move.

"I actually like it better, being out of the pocket," Roethlisberger said. "I think it brings more to my game. I think it's tougher on defenses because they don't know if you're going to run or pass. It gives you more options, it's harder for people to cover ... If you're smart and you get out of the pocket, I think you can be a lot more dangerous."

Through four games, Roethlisberger has been dangerous enough. He has completed 78 of 113 attempts for 937 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. And many plays have come while on the run, something the Steelers saw little of under Maddox.

"It's something new to have a scrambling quarterback back there," receiver Plaxico Burress told the Post-Gazette . "He's making safe decisions and he gives us an opportunity to go get the ball and make plays. It's like we are freelancing it sometimes."

Teammate Antwaan Randle El, a quarterback turned receiver, said Roethlisberger's athleticism is understated.

"He has a special gift to be able to get out of the pocket and make plays the way he does, and to be smart about it too," Randle El said. "He's been smart about his throws and his play-making ability and being out of the pocket and being on the run. That complements us big time."

Unlike other young mobile quarterbacks, when Roethlisberger moves, he does so with the intention of passing, not sprinting downfield.

"Ever since (Findlay, Ohio) high school we did a lot of sprintouts and boots to get me out of the pocket because I can do that," Roethlisberger said. "I think it's just something that has evolved as part of my game."

While Roethlisberger's start has been the biggest surprise in the NFL this season, league experts say talent isn't the only explanation.

"There's no doubt that he's talented, but think about it, part of it is where he's at," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "They've got a really good running game (135.5 yards per game, fifth best in the NFL), they've got a really good defense (287.5 yards per game, sixth overall) again. All he has to do is do his part. And he's not making mistakes. All he has to do is not beat himself, and because of that they are winning football games."

Some, however, say it is too early to anoint Roethlisberger the next great quarterback.

"It's an impressive start for four games, but you don't judge people over four games, you judge them over years and over a career," Bucs veteran quarterback Brad Johnson said. "He's off to a great start, especially for a rookie. I can't imagine even calling plays as a rookie. It was difficult enough trying to call a play in the huddle. But he's got to keep it hot because there are going to be some cold days."

Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

[Last modified October 29, 2004, 00:16:20]


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