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Right Pace at the Right Time

Steelers' Roethlisberger learned after last season that he must save something for playoffs

January 15, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rolled into last season's playoffs like a car running on fumes.

"I was worn down," he said. "And so, when you get to that point in the season, in the playoffs, you can't make any mistakes, you have to be on top of your game. I feel like I was really falling off the table."

And it showed. In two playoff games as a rookie, he threw five passes that were intercepted -- two returned for touchdowns -- and had a modest passer rating of 61.3. Despite having home-field advantage, the Steelers lost the AFC title game to New England, a defeat that took some of the luster off Roethlisberger's otherwise spectacular season.

Now, with another year of experience, the Steeler quarterback has a much better idea of what challenges the postseason holds.

"The speed is so much faster, the mistakes are magnified," said Roethlisberger, whose team plays at Indianapolis today in a divisional playoff game. "You can't turn the ball over because, if you do, they're going to take advantage of it. If you get behind in the playoffs, you may never catch back up."

Then again, that isn't always the case. Last week at Cincinnati, with Bengal quarterback Carson Palmer out, the Steelers overcame a 17-7 deficit by scoring 24 unanswered points on their way to a 31-17 victory.

It was an important step for Roethlisberger, who completed 73.7% of his passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He proved not only that he could win a playoff game in a hostile environment, but that the Steelers can now count on him in do-or-die situations to carry the team.

Pittsburgh doesn't have the defense it had last season, nor is its running game as dominant. Now, the Steelers are leaning on their second-year quarterback to win games, a quarterback who played last season only because of an injury to Tommy Maddox.

"Heading into last season, he thought he was going to get the NFL's version of a redshirt year, just like Carson Palmer and Steve McNair did," said Leigh Steinberg, Roethlisberger's agent. "It didn't work out that way."

Instead, the No. 11 pick began his career with 14 consecutive victories -- an NFL record -- and his winning streak reached 27 counting his senior season at Miami of Ohio. Pittsburgh restaurants named hamburgers after him. His jersey outsold that of every other rookie. He was a guest on David Letterman. And this off-season, he had a whirlwind romance with golfer Natalie Gulbis.

His life in the spotlight took a toll.

"When you add it all up, he never got a break," Steinberg said. "He was exhausted. He had physically been beaten up. He had not really had any break at all between the summer of 2003 and the end of 2004. He was physically and mentally drained."

He doesn't look that way now. If anything, he's learned to pace himself. His life appears to be calmer, even though the stakes are just as high. Whereas last year he was fading away at this point of the season, he's now ascending.

"I've done everything I can to try to be better this year than I was last year," he said this week. "I'm trying not to let my guys down and disappoint like we did last year.... I feel more comfortable with what I'm doing, and hopefully it's translated into me being a better player."

Whether that will be enough to make the difference against Indianapolis is another matter. The Steelers were overmatched against the Colts in a Week 12 game at the RCA Dome. The Colts scored an 80-yard touchdown on their first offensive play and barely broke a sweat in a 26-7 rout.

It was a miserable game for Roethlisberger, who was limited to 133 yards passing and sacked three times, and two of his passes were intercepted. Because of crowd noise, he had a hard time communicating with the rest of the offense. All that, and he was coming off knee surgery that had sidelined him for three games.

"I feel lot better now than I did then," he said. "I was a little tentative. I didn't even know what shoes to wear out there on the turf."

He has the right shoes now. And, unlike last season, the legs to make them move.



Postseason numbers

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's performance in last week's wild-card victory at Cincinnati stood in stark contrast to how he fared in two playoff starts last January. A look at his postseason in 2005 versus last week:

*--* 2005 Last Week Completion pct. 57.4 73.7 Yards/attempt 7.5 10.9 TDs/interceptions 3/5 3/0 Passer rating 61.3 148.7



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