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2 Pittsburgh Steelers

Sept. 05, 2005
Sept. 05, 2005

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Sept. 5, 2005

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2 Pittsburgh Steelers

After his sensational rookie season, what can Ben Roethlisberger possibly do for an encore? Well, there is one thing ... get to the Super Bowl

FOR THE past seven months, ever since that cold January night when the Steelers' surprising 2004 season expired a game short of the Super Bowl, one question has dominated the conversation across western Pennsylvania: Can Big Ben do it again?

This is an article from the Sept. 5, 2005 issue Original Layout

In leading the Steelers to a conference-record 15 regular-season victories and an AFC Championship Game appearance, Ben Roethlisberger became an instant Steeltown sensation. It was the most impressive rookie campaign by a quarterback since Dan Marino's 21 years earlier. Now, to live up to his own lofty standards--not to mention those of Hall of Famer Marino, a Pittsburgh native who won NFL MVP honors and led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his second season--Roethlisberger must provide a reasonable facsimile of 2004, minus the five postseason interceptions. If he does not come through, expect the term sophomore slump to be tossed around at Steelers games more often than coach Bill Cowher's headset after a dubious officiating call.

"I know that if we don't go 15-1 people are going to say it's a slump, so I don't worry about it," says Roethlisberger. "The bottom line is that I can have a better season [statistically] and we could still win fewer games than we did a year ago. What matters is that we win the ones that count."

This is as close as the Findlay, Ohio, native comes to soft-pedaling his own abilities. After replacing the injured Tommy Maddox in the second game last season, the self-assured, 6'5", 241-pound Roethlisberger won 14 consecutive regular-season starts plus a division playoff against the Jets before losing to the Patriots in the AFC title game. He broke Marino's rookie-season records for completion percentage (.664) and passer rating (98.1). Off the field he dated pro golfer Natalie Gulbis (the two have since broken up), schmoozed with wrestler-turned-actor The Rock and, against the wishes of his coach, cultivated the image of a renegade, helmet-shunning biker.

In the wake of Roethlisberger's sudden celebrity, it figures that people will wonder whether the young quarterback's head has grown too big for his helmet. "There's always a danger of being overconfident," says halfback Jerome Bettis, drawing on his own experience following a 1,429-yard campaign as a Los Angeles Rams rookie in 1993. "You lose track of the little things and stop doing the basics, and you forget the fact that a lot of others contributed to your success. Before my sophomore year I had a T-shirt made that said 2,000 or bust. Then I went out and barely got 1,000. That was a rude awakening."

Bettis believes Roethlisberger will avoid a similar drop-off because they play in a system that often places the quarterback in a subordinate role. Last season Pittsburgh relied largely on its hard-nosed ground game and a punishing, active defense that yielded the fewest yards in the league (258.4 per game). Each unit returns largely intact--though the offense will start the season without the injured Bettis and Duce Staley, who combined for 1,771 rushing yards in '04. "He deserves the glory," linebacker Joey Porter says of Roethlisberger, "but as much as Ben did for us last year, it was still what we did around him that was the key."

Conversely, Roethlisberger admits that his postseason struggles, particularly in the overtime victory over the Jets, may have been the result of trying to do too much. He has displayed more patience in his attempt to master the Pittsburgh offense, which Cowher has slowly opened up as his quarterback has grown more familiar with it. For now, however, the quarterback will continue to wear his conspicuous wristband--inscribed with numerous plays from the Steelers' playbook--ideally as a safety net and not a learning tool. "A year ago he was looking down and reading the wristband, and he probably didn't even know who was in the huddle with him," Cowher says. "Now he'll take one glance, recognize the play and make eye contact with his teammates as he reads it."

Complicating Roethlisberger's efforts to match last season's excellence will be the absence of his good friend Plaxico Burress, the talented 6'5" wideout who signed with the Giants as a free agent. Cowher, however, doesn't appear concerned. "Ben has set the bar very high," he says. "Even if he goes under the bar, he's still a very good quarterback."

To be considered a great one in his second season, he'll have to leap over that bar--and land in the Super Bowl. --M.S.

PLAYMAKER

When Pittsburgh signed him three years ago, left interior linebacker James Farrior was an off-the-radar free agent looking to revive his career after five unspectacular seasons with the Jets. On the heels of a brilliant 2004 performance he ranks as one of the league's best defensive players. Farrior did it all last year: three sacks, four interceptions (for 113 return yards), eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 67 solo tackles.

AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW
ENEMY LINES

What a great defense, and the first guy to jump out at you is James Farrior. He's fast, instinctive and tough.... Aaron Smith is underrated. They don't ask their defensive linemen to make a lot of plays, so you don't see his name much, but he's a big, tough guy who frees up the linebackers. Casey Hampton has strong hands and is really athletic for a big guy. Kimo von Oelhoffen still has one of the best head slaps in the league.... The safeties are terrific. Troy Polamalu is explosive; he has so much power for a safety. Chris Hope will hit you too, and he can cover.... I know they lost Plaxico Burress, but they picked up a nice receiver in Cedrick Wilson. The guy's got excellent hands. I don't see that as a downgrade.... Jerome Bettis is just amazing. The guy's got unbelievable feet, great vision and cutting ability, and perfect timing.... Their new right tackle, Max Starks, is a big, athletic guy. The question is, Can he adopt that Steelers mentality and be a tough, bruising player? ... They play hard on special teams. Russell Stuvaints, James Harrison and Chidi Iwuoma are backup guys who can run down on kickoffs and knock you on your butt.

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics

OFFENSE

DUCE STALEY
POS. -- RB
PVR -- 97
ATT.-- 192
YARDS -- 830
AVG. -- 4.3
REC.-- 6
YARDS -- 55
AVG. -- 9.2
TDs -- 1

BEN ROETHLISBERGER
POS. -- QB
PVR -- 84
ATT. -- 295
COMP. -- 196
% -- 66.4
YARDS -- 2,621
TDs -- 17
INT. -- 11
RATING -- 98.1

DAN KREIDER
POS. -- FB
PVR -- 312
ATT. -- 4
YARDS -- 18
AVG. -- 4.5
REC. -- 10
YARDS -- 75
AVG. -- 7.5
TDs -- 1

JEFF REED
POS. -- K
PVR -- 214
XPs MADE -- 40
XPs ATT. -- 40
FG MADE -- 28
FG ATT. -- 33
PTS. -- 124

HINES WARD
POS. -- WR
PVR -- 45
REC. -- 80
YARDS -- 1,004
TDs -- 4

JERAME TUMAN
POS. -- TE
PVR -- 245
REC. -- 9
YARDS -- 89
TDs -- 3

MARVEL SMITH
POS. -- LT
HEIGHT -- 6'5"
WEIGHT -- 321
GMS. -- 16
STARTS -- 16

ALAN FANECA
POS. --  LG
HEIGHT -- 6'5"
WEIGHT -- 307
GMS. -- 16
STARTS -- 16

JEFF HARTINGS
POS. -- C
HEIGHT -- 6'3"
WEIGHT -- 299
GMS. -- 16
STARTS  -- 16

KENDALL SIMMONS
POS. -- RG
HEIGHT -- 6'3"
WEIGHT -- 313
GMS. -- 0
STARTS -- 0

MAX STARKS
POS. -- RT
HEIGHT -- 6'7"
WEIGHT -- 337
GMS. -- 10
STARTS -- 0

ANTWAAN RANDLE EL
POS. -- WR
PVR -- 125
REC. -- 43
YARDS -- 601
TDs -- 3

DEFENSE

JOEY PORTER
POS. -- ROLB
TACKLES -- 54
SACKS -- 7
INT. -- 1

LARRY FOOTE
POS. -- RILB
TACKLES -- 69
SACKS -- 3
INT. -- 1

KIMO VON OELHOFFEN
POS. -- RE
TACKLES -- 24
SACKS -- 1

CASEY HAMPTON
POS. -- NT
TACKLES -- 15
SACKS -- 0

AARON SMITH
POS. -- LE
TACKLES -- 44
SACKS -- 8

JAMES FARRIOR
POS. -- LILB
TACKLES -- 95
SACKS -- 3
INT. -- 4

CLARK HAGGANS
POS. -- LOLB
TACKLES -- 38
SACKS -- 6
INT. -- 0

DESHEA TOWNSEND
POS. -- CB
TACKLES -- 56
INT. -- 4

TROY POLAMALU
POS. -- SS
TACKLES -- 94
SACKS -- 1
INT. -- 5

CHRIS HOPE
POS. -- FS
TACKLES -- 90
SACKS -- 0
INT. -- 1

WILLIE WILLIAMS
POS. -- CB
TACKLES -- 54
INT. -- 1

CHRIS GARDOCKI
POS. -- P
PUNTS -- 67
AVG. -- 43.0

2004 RECORD: 15-1

NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
OFFENSE  2/28/16
DEFENSE  1/4/1

COACH: Bill Cowher; 14th season with Pittsburgh (130-77-1 in NFL)

NEW ACQUISITION
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)

SCHEDULE

SEPTEMBER
11 TENNESSEE
18 at Houston
25 NEW ENGLAND

OCTOBER
2 Open date
10 at San Diego (M)
16 JACKSONVILLE
23 at Cincinnati
31 BALTIMORE (M)

NOVEMBER
6 at Green Bay
13 CLEVELAND
20 at Baltimore
28 at Indianapolis (M)

DECEMBER
4 CINCINNATI
11 CHICAGO
18 at Minnesota
24 at Cleveland (S)

JANUARY
1 DETROIT

(M) MONDAY
(S) SATURDAY

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: 12
Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .508
Games against playoff teams: 5

"They lost Plaxico Burress, but they picked up Cedrick Wilson. I don't see that as a downgrade."

 

PHOTOAL TIELEMANSGROUP EFFORT In Pittsburgh's power offense, Big Ben doesn't have to put up big stats.PHOTOKIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COMHOPEPHOTONFL/WIREIMAGE.COM