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Pittsburgh Steelers like to make a play last

QB Ben Roethlisberger's ability to keep a play alive and find open receivers has the New York Jets wary. The teams vie in the AFC title game Sunday.

January 20, 2011|Sam Farmer

Reporting from Pittsburgh — For all the Pittsburgh Steelers have -- an elite quarterback, the best safety in the game, a record six Lombardi trophies -- there's one thing they lack, something that's conspicuously missing from every spring workout and training camp practice:

A whistle.

That's by design. To condition their receivers to keep working to get open, and their defensive players never to give up, Steelers coaches swallow their whistles during passing drills.

Ben Roethlisberger is their quarterback, after all, and nobody in football does a better job of twisting away from would-be tacklers and turning a nothing play into a big one.

"We'll just let the play get extended until the ball is thrown," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians explained Thursday of the philosophy in practice. He said even if Roethlisberger is "sacked" -- although that's only simulated in practice -- he's instructed to keep scrambling.

"The defense always gets mad because they thought they'd sacked us," Arians added. "It's fun."

Clearly, it's also effective. The Steelers play host to the New York Jets in the AFC championship game Sunday, and Roethlisberger's ability to keep plays alive -- his receivers relentlessly churning to get open -- figures to pose a daunting defensive challenge.

Jets defensive end Trevor Pryce said Roethlisberger is "tougher than everybody else."

"It's one thing to be tough as an offensive lineman, but as a quarterback?" Pryce said, adding: "If he wasn't a quarterback, he'd be a defensive end. He's as big as one."

Jets All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis said the plays can last 10 to 15 seconds, and New York's coaches have implored players to "plaster" their men in coverage.

"Plastering is, basically, just latching on to your guy," Revis said. "If you're playing against a quarterback like Ben, just latch on to [the receiver] as tight as you can when the play extends. A receiver might run a curl route or a slant, but his next read, if he sees Ben scrambling, then he'll break it off and run vertical or maybe turn around and run to the sideline to get a catch on the sideline."

It's incredibly difficult for a defensive back, even one as good as Revis, to stay with a receiver that long. The Jets played brilliantly against New England last Sunday, disrupting Tom Brady's normally deadly rhythm passing attack. But Pittsburgh takes a much different approach, as if the play hasn't even started until Roethlisberger is on his third or fourth read.

Of course, he has to have people on the other end of those passes working just as hard. Chief among those is Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who has an uncanny ability to get open even though he's far from being the fastest player on the field.

Ward says having been a college quarterback and knowing the game from that perspective has helped him know how to get open.

"You just have to know coverage, and how the defense is playing me," said Ward, 34. "You've got to know how to exploit it. I'm a great student of the game. I've always said, 'When I can't get open on a guy that I think I'm supposed to get open on, I'll leave the game.'"

Ward had 59 catches this season, his lowest total in 10 years, and had five touchdowns, his fewest since 2004. But he's quick to point out he missed one game, sat out part of another, and his receptions total is only one shy of Mike Wallace's team-leading 60.

Still, the Jets are likely to put Revis, their best corner, on Ward.

"I may not be where I was when I was 22 or 23," Ward said. "But if everybody thinks I'm falling off or something, why would Revis waste his time with me? Statistically, people are always going to say, 'Yeah, he's losing a step.' But I've been losing a step since I was 30. You look at it, and it seems like, 'How is this guy still getting open?' But I've been playing this game for a long time."

And no surprise here: He hasn't heard the whistle.

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