Ben dropped ball with old coach

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- What was one of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's ridiculous criticisms of his former offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, after he left to take the Arizona Cardinals' job? That he was too conservative?

You could have fooled me yesterday.

Actually, Whisenhunt fooled the Steelers.

Badly.

There are a number of reasons for Whisenhunt to feel good about his Cardinals' 21-14 victory against the Steelers. You know the obvious one, the one involving the Steelers' decision not to give him their head coaching job when Bill Cowher left after last season despite Whisenhunt's fine work with Roethlisberger and the offense in the Super Bowl year of 2005 and the 15-1 season of 2004. Revenge is oh so sweet.

"Oh, yeah, this is really big for Whiz," said Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a former Pitt star who played a huge part in the victory. "This was definitely not a normal week for us. You could tell Whiz really wanted us to get after it."

But there was another big reason.

Whisenhunt's play calling was huge.

It was anything but conservative.

"That's my mentality," Whisenhunt said afterward, thoroughly confused why Roethlisberger has gone out of his way to attempt to create a grudge between them, much as another great Steelers quarterback -- Terry Bradshaw -- tried to create a silly, imaginary one a few decades ago with Chuck Noll.

It's a crying shame Roethlisberger didn't see Whisenhunt before the game. There was a love-fest when Whisenhunt came onto the field; maybe two-dozen Steelers rushed over to hug him. It's hard to believe it was an accident that Big Ben wasn't among them, especially after he didn't have the class to go congratulate Whisenhunt after the win. "Hopefully, one day, we'll talk," Whisenhunt said.

It's not like Whisenhunt lacked for people patting him on the back.

His players were thrilled for him.

"We all really wanted to win this game," Fitzgerald said. "We've had it circled since the schedule came out."

Whisenhunt's take?

"If you're asking me if I'm excited about us beating the Steelers, sure I am. But I don't have any animosity toward that football team. What I'm proud of is our guys stepping up and making plays and beating a good team to win a game that no one gave us a chance to win.

"This gives us something to build on. It makes us feel like we can play with anybody."

Whisenhunt's prints were all over the victory, starting with the way he handled his quarterbacks. For the second week in a row, he benched young starter Matt Leinart and brought in old vet Kurt Warner to run the no-huddle offense to give the Cardinals a spark. It worked exactly as planned; Warner led a long third-quarter touchdown drive to tie the score, 7-7.

But after Steve Breaston's 73-yard punt return for a score gave the Cardinals a 14-7 lead, Whisenhunt went back to Leinart. Together, the two were marvelous on a touchdown drive that clinched the victory.

On first down at the Arizona 18, when everybody in the rocket ship-like stadium was thinking run, Whisenhunt had Leinart run a play fake to running back Edgerrin James and throw a deep pass to Fitzgerald, who beat cornerback Ike Taylor and made a terrific catch for a 38-yard gain.

"That play was something we worked on all week," Whisenhunt said. "We were just waiting for the right time."

"I lobbied for it," said Fitzgerald, who had 11 catches for 123 yards. "I told coach, 'Just give me a shot. Let me make a play.' "

Later in that drive, Whisenhunt had Leinart sneak for a first down on fourth-and-1 at the Steelers' 24 when a Neil Rackers field goal would have given the Cardinals a 10-point lead.

"I'd have been a dummy if that one didn't work," Whisenhunt said. "It just felt like the right call. I had a lot of faith in our line."

On the next play, Whisenhunt called another play-action pass, this one to wide receiver Bryant Johnson for an 11-yard gain.

Not exactly conservative, right?

"We thought they'd be playing the run and we'd have a shot with the pass," Whisenhunt said, shrugging.

James scored on a 2-yard run moments later to complete a near-perfect day for Whisenhunt. His team didn't just beat the Steelers, his old team. He was able to get Leinart -- his new team's future -- back in the game and have him go home feeling good about himself.

"He showed you why he's going to be a really good quarterback in this league," Whisenhunt said.

The man knows one when he sees one.

He had Roethlisberger, didn't he?

"I'd never say anything bad about Ben," Whisenhunt said. "He's a good quarterback and a good kid."

Whisenhunt would have told that to Roethlisberger's face yesterday. Too bad Big Ben didn't have the decency to give him the chance.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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