Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison (92) pressures and sacks Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) in the third quarter of the NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar
November 03, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) Ben Roethlisberger rolled to his left, lobbed one last rainbow on a record-setting night and sent a message in the process.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have wholly, finally embraced the NFL's arms race

And they're doing it with a quarterback at the peak of his powers and a rapidly maturing group of players that could provide matchup nightmares for opponents over the final two months of the regular season and perhaps beyond.

Cover all-everything wide receiver Antonio Brown and rookie Martavis Bryant might be open. Or running back Le'Veon Bell. Or Markus Wheaton. Or tight end Heath Miller.

Even the lesser-known players are getting into the act. Roethlisberger's sixth touchdown pass in Sunday night's 43-23 romp over Baltimore might have been his favorite.

Up two scores with 2 minutes remaining, the Steelers didn't exactly run out the clock.

Facing fourth-and-2 at the Baltimore 33, Roethlisberger bought time and found little-used tight end Matt Spaeth lumbering toward the end zone. Spaeth lunged across the goal line to give Roethlisberger his sixth scoring toss of the game and 12 in two weeks, an NFL record.

''(Spaeth) has been around a long time and puts a lot of dirty work in, a lot of blocking,'' Roethlisberger said. ''For him to get that big touchdown, I was just so excited for him.''

It's becoming contagious.

Languishing through the first six weeks of the season, the Steelers used a three-game homestand against Houston, Indianapolis and Baltimore to redefine their season. Pittsburgh scored 124 points in 180 minutes while going 3-0.

Though Roethlisberger isn't exactly ready to say the Steelers have arrived, they have certainly closed the gap between themselves and AFC frontrunners Denver and New England.

''I've said it before, as long as we win that's all that matters,'' Roethlisberger said.

Maybe, though the Steelers have added more than a little style to go with their substance.

Brown joined former Dallas Cowboys star and Hall of Famer Michael Irvin as the only players in league history to have five receptions for at least 80 yards in each of his team's first nine games.

Bryant, who languished on the inactive list the first six weeks, has five touchdowns in three games. Wheaton, whose role diminished through much of September and October, has doubled his career touchdown total in the span of two weeks.

The Steelers have scored touchdowns in eight of their past nine trips to the red zone over their past two games, one more touchdown than they managed during their first seven weeks of the season combined.

''I think everybody has a part in it,'' Bryant said. ''Everybody looks at their game. Everybody works hard in practice. And everybody takes more emphasis in red zone. So it's just a whole team thing. Everybody is just working.''

And scoring. Roethlisberger's dozen touchdowns over the past eight quarters have gone to five different players, each of them emphasizing Pittsburgh's growing versatility.

The 6-foot-4 Bryant gives Roethlisberger the big body the Steelers have lacked since Plaxico Burress was in town a decade ago.

Bell is one of the few backs in the league who looks just as comfortable lining up at receiver as he does taking a handoff. Miller is the warm security blanket. Wheaton is the blur quick enough to get behind the secondary.

Then there's Brown. The NFL's leading receiver is establishing himself as one of the league's best. His 54-yard catch-and-scat touchdown in the fourth quarter provided a splash of everything.

He ran a 15-yard out, with Roethlisberger so confident Brown would be open the quarterback threw the ball before Brown was even out of his break. Brown deftly pulled the ball to his chest, sidestepped a tackler then ran by a handful of Ravens on his way to his eighth score of the season.

''Any time you get the ball into his hands he is something special,'' Roethlisberger said. ''That's why I said earlier ... that the receivers that I play with, he's at the top of it. He is something special and he's fun to watch.''

At the moment, so are the rest of the Steelers.


AP NFL websites: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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