Elusive Big Ben makes big plays
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Among Brett Keisel's chores as a starting defensive end is to rush the quarterback. He's happy to say he does not have to chase after Ben Roethlisberger other than in practice.
That's like trying to tackle Secretariat.
"Gosh, he's incredible," Keisel spouted. "I don't think there's a quarterback in the league who does what he does as far as feeling the rush come and getting out."
Roethlisberger used that routine to great advantage in the Steelers' 24-13 victory in Cincinnati Sunday. Twice, he completed passes to Santonio Holmes on third down -- once with a player hanging on him and once after he broke a tackle. He scrambled on another third down for 9 yards and a first down.
At 6 feet 5, 240 pounds, Roethlisberger is a big man who can move. He showed that in his rookie season when he often threw on the run out of the pocket. Many of those were by design; the ones in Cincinnati occurred out of necessity when he came under attack.
No one, least of all Roethlisberger, wants him to pull his escape act often, even if it is effective. The preference is for him to stay in the pocket with enough protection to allow him time to throw, with the exception of the designed bootlegs and such. Of course, that does not always happen and when it does not, the Steelers are confident they have perhaps the best in the league at throwing out of a firebreak.
"It puts a lot of pressure on defenses," said wide receiver Hines Ward, who caught two touchdown passes from Roethlisberger while he stayed in the pocket Sunday. "You think you have him blitzed and you have him, and the next thing you know he escapes containment and makes huge plays on third downs."
There are basically three components to breaking out of a pocket by the quarterback: He must sense the rush, then either avoid it or break a tackle, and finally be able to throw on the run or decide to run himself.
Some are good at one or two. It's rare to have a quarterback who can do them all. Also, it's rare to have one who is a threat to throw or run after he eludes a rush, such as Roethlisberger. Kordell Stewart, for example, was adept at avoiding a rush, but he could not throw on the run; once he darted away from pressure, he almost always looked to run.
"I think the balance that you are looking for is that he has 'escapability,' meaning that when it is time for him or when you need for him to escape, he is capable of doing it," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I think that is what he is doing and that is why I am comfortable with where we are. He is not a run-happy quarterback. He is a quarterback that is elusive and can buy time because of athleticism when plays break down."
Sometimes, Roethlisberger senses his pocket breaking down when it does not and he runs away from pressure that was not there. But, as Tomlin said, those things can be picked out on Monday much easier than they are if you're the one in the pocket on Sunday.
"I am sure he saw it as a necessity," Tomlin said. "We come in on Monday and take the emotions out and we evaluate our performance and make corrections so we are better the next time. That is the approach he has taken, but on Sunday, Ben was stellar."
Roethlisberger has been that way on most Sundays this season. His passer rating of 102.2 ranks fourth in the NFL, just .7 behind second place. He's third in touchdown percentage and, more importantly, 16th in interception percentage after leading the league last season with 23 interceptions.
Roethlisberger has thrown a touchdown pass in 12 consecutive games and his 15 scoring tosses are just three off his season high of 18.
Tom Brady resides in a league of his own this season with 30 touchdown passes, but Roethlisberger has thrown two more than Peyton Manning.
The Steelers and Roethlisberger's agent are no doubt looking closely at the new deal that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo signed this week. It's for a reported $67 million over six years, with $30 million guaranteed. That will be a good starting point after the season when extension talks open for Roethlisberger, who has many more accomplishments, experience and one more Super Bowl ring than Romo.
Roethlisberger, who is featured in a Sports Illustrated story this week, has obviously improved since his crash-and-burn season of 2006. There have been new coaches in 2007 and no calamities, and there also is perhaps a new maturity by the quarterback, who has been given more responsibility and say in the offense.
First Published October 31, 2007 12:00 am