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NFL | WEEK 6 | COMMENTARY

Steelers Big on Passing, Then Big on Scaring

October 16, 2005|Bob Oates | Special to The Times

With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and their new interest in passing, the Pittsburgh Steelers had become the NFL's team to beat this season in the run for the Super Bowl. Then Roethlisberger went down with a knee injury in the last minute Monday night at San Diego.

That was the scariest minute of the season for the Steelers, but Roethlisberger's injury proved not to be serious. He is expected back in the Pittsburgh lineup soon, perhaps as soon as today at Heinz Field against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Without Big Ben, the Steelers probably would be just another team in the NFL's parity wing.

The Steelers, however, came out passing in San Diego -- for the first time in the two-year Roethlisberger era -- and his passes won a 24-22 game from the Chargers, who again, with quarterback Drew Brees, looked like an all-the-way Super Bowl contender

For the Chargers, much depends on their attitude and morale in their next two -- at Oakland today and at Philadelphia -- after losing that tough one.

The Injury Threat

Roethlisberger was just one of many NFL starters who went down last weekend, some for the day, some for the season.

In every football game, every play is a physical-contact play -- bone vs. bone, muscle vs. muscle, ligament vs. ligament -- with the potential to change the status of any team from greatness to also-ran, or from good to mediocre.

With a new season not yet one-third done, late hits and other big hits -- legal and illegal -- have already taken down two of the league's top teams, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.

All season, New England fans have been asking whether the Patriots can win their third straight Super Bowl. But that's the wrong question. The reality is that last year's Patriots and this year's are wholly different teams, made so by injuries that have destroyed their defensive backfield, including, most prominently, their defensive leader, safety Rodney Harrison.

So the real question there now is whether the new Patriot team can reach the Super Bowl.

The odds are against it.

The New Eagles

Nor are the 2005 Eagles the same team that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl last winter. This has been a different team ever since quarterback Donovan McNabb was hurt on a late hit more than a month ago, suffering an internal injury that seems to worsen in every game.

The Eagle situation isn't unique, of course, but an injury play as costly as McNabb's can drastically change the nature and potential of any pro club.

That's the threat that hangs over every title-contending football team on every play.

Bledsoe Unbothered

In Week 5, football's parity epidemic reached McNabb's team. A surprising performance by Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe, combined with another deteriorating performance by McNabb, evened up the NFC East when the Cowboys won, 33-10.

They won by putting a blocking screen in front of Bledsoe that protected him from Philadelphia's pass rush.

NFL teams have learned that the only way to beat Bledsoe is to rush him straight up the middle and out of the pocket, which didn't happen this time for two reasons:

* The Cowboys unexpectedly but wisely came out passing when Coach Bill Parcells joined the aggressive passing teams that are steadily taking over the league from running teams.

* The Eagles didn't expect that and didn't rush Bledsoe as aggressively as Bledsoe threw the ball.

He is as competent as the NFL's most effective passers when allowed to drop, set and throw. When harassed in the pocket, however, he can be heavy-legged and incompetent.

Bledsoe, to be sure, isn't the only passer who needs launching room, but for years he has been the example of a passer who falls apart when he doesn't have that.

Brady's New Mission

The defending-champion Patriots, in the second month of the long season, will confront the Broncos in Denver today with a new goal in life.

Quarterback Tom Brady's mission now is to outscore his defensive team each week.

The Patriot defense has lost so many starters to injury that Brady will have to pile up a lot of points just to offset the yards and points yielded by the rebuilding Patriot defense.

In Week 5, when the Patriot brass agreed to let him out of the shotgun formation, Brady took the first step, outscoring the Atlanta Falcons, 31-28.

Usually lining up in conventional old one-back Patriot formations, Brady got off three touchdown passes -- including one unbelievably high, long one to a sprinting Patriot, Bethel Johnson.

That throw measured at least 65 yards and seemingly half that high. In truth, the Atlanta defense gave up on the play, disbelieving that Brady could put the ball out there as far as Johnson seemed to be heading.

Dillon Can Run

During New England's recent misadventure into shotgun football, running back Corey Dillon was restricted so severely that even his fans kept asking, "What's the matter with Dillon?"

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