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Steelers come back with rookie and backup players!
Fifteen weeks ago and before his first start against the Miami Dolphins, I wrote an article analyzing the enormous potential of Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. At that point, the Steelers were 1-1 and coming off a beating at the hands of their North Division rival, the Baltimore Ravens. Needless to say, I was only cautiously optimistic about “Big Ben” and the Steelers chances this season. Let’s fast forward to week 14, where the Steelers have just set a franchise record becoming just the 7th team in NFL history to win 12 straight games, the latest victim being the New York Giants.
Though the team has not looked sharp the past few weeks, the Steelers continue to find a way to win, reminiscent of the 2001 World Champion Patriots. This season’s success can be attributed to many things such as Coach Bill Cowher’s return to the running game, the resurgence of the Steel Curtain thanks to Coach Dick Lebeau, and the contributions of Jerome Bettis who graciously accepted a back-up role and a 2.5 million dollar pay cut to remain with the team. However, I believe the two greatest factors to the Steelers success are the solid play of the many Steelers back-ups who have filled in for injured starters, and the brilliant play of their rookie quarterback.
Before I talk more about Ben I want to address the Steelers injury situation. What many people have overlooked is that more than 1/3 of the Steelers starters have missed games due to injury, yet that hasn’t stopped them from winning. The backups have filled in valiantly and in some cases, the team is better off. Take Ben Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis for example; they are starting in place of the injured Tommy Maddox and Duce Staley. Their superior play has surpassed that of their starting counterparts, a big reason for the increased offensive production.
There are countless other examples of backups who have also stepped up when called upon. Some of these players include the solid offensive line play of Keydrick Vincent in place of Kendall Simmons, the return of Willie Williams to replace Chad Scott at cornerback, Larry Foote at linebacker for Kendrell Bell, Chris Hoke replacing Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton, James Harrison replacing linebacker Clark Haggans, Lee Mays stepping up in place of WR Plaxico Burress and on and on. These unsung heroes are a major reason why the Steelers are 16-1.
The other key reason for the team’s success can be attributed to the savvy play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. One week, he shared the field with the first overall player and quarterback taken in this year’s draft, Eli Manning. Manning, who has only one win this season, was 16-23 for 182 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. His game against the Steelers was by far the most productive game of his NFL career. Yet, his performance was once again overshadowed by the third quarterback taken in the 2004 NFL draft, Ben Roethlisberger.
Unlike Manning, Rothlisberger is yet to lose a game in the NFL, winning his 12th straight victory, unprecedented by a rookie going into the Baltimore Ravens game. In the Giants game, he threw his first 300 yard passing game of the season completing 18 of 28 pass attempts for 316 yards, three sacks, two interceptions and 1 touchdown. Rothlisberger was again at his best in the 4th quarter, completing four consecutive passes for 59 yards and setting up Bettis’ game winning touchdown run. It was the 3rd time this season that Rothlisberger conducted a late come from behind scoring drive.
A first for Rothlisberger was his 28 attempted passes, “There's been a question about Ben being able to throw the ball,” said Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. “People said we have not had to throw much, but he showed today he can do that.”
Rothlisberger had never thrown more than 25 times in any of his previous starts because the Steelers have led in every one of those games and therefore have opted to run. As a result, the Steelers passing game is ranked a dismal 27th in the league, (the statistic is based on total passing yards). However Rothlisberger is gaining an average of 8.4 yards per pass completion, second in the AFC next to arguable the league’s best quarterback, Peyton manning. Rothlisberger is also second in the AFC in completion percentage (66.1). His season has been nothing short of spectacular, and he has won the NFL Rookie of the Year.
In an otherwise lackluster performance in which the defense failed to show up and the team as a whole looked fatigued, the Steelers still managed to set more individual milestones; adding to an already impressive record breaking season. The milestones against the Giants included Rothlisberger’s first 300 yard passing performance and Antwaan Randle El’s five catches for 149 yards and 1 touchdown, both in break-out games. Bettis passed the 10,000 yard mark with the Steelers with 140 yards on 36 carries and passed Eric Dickerson for fourth place on the all-time rushing list at the end of the regular season. Hines Ward, (9 catches for 134 yards), also got in on the act by catching his 500th career reception. Hines’ numbers in recent weeks have been on the decline due to him being double and sometimes triple teamed as a result of Plaxico Burress’s absence.
Despite all the accolades, many people do not believe he will be able to conduct the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory. It is true that no team has ever won a Super Bowl with a rookie at the helm. However, Rothlisberger is far from an ordinary rookie. Until this year, no rookie had ever won more than seven straight starts! Rothlisberger already has won 14. Time will tell if he can also be the first to guide his team to a Super Bowl victory after a dismal performance against the New York Jets in the playoffs which almost cost them a rematch against the New England Patriots in the championship game which will be held Sunday, Jan 23 at 6:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.
Despite all that has been accomplished this season, the Steelers agree that it means nothing without a Super Bowl victory. The Steelers’ have been mediocre at best in the past eight weeks, despite gaining victories in all eight games. The team has been plagued by injuries and appears to be exhausted. Given all of that and the strength of the AFC this season, the Steelers must go 18-1 to win the Super Bowl taking care of business this Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. Yet, for the first time since Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers have a quarterback talented enough to win the big game.
Statistics taken from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette!
Balestrino's Bytes can be seen on the Pittsburgh Standard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org