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12-15-2008, 08:03 PM
Roethlisberger turns perceived flaw into weapon


By Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports 11 hours, 1 minute ago

BALTIMORE – Ben Roethlisberger scrambled to his left and saw an opening, and for a split second the Pittsburgh Steelers’ relentlessly confident quarterback was sure he’d be the one to score the first and decisive touchdown in a game of perpetual door-slamming.

This is it. I’m going in.

Or not: As he stepped forward to the 10-yard line, Roethlisberger saw a trio of Baltimore Ravens defenders closing fast and he realized that running for the end zone on third-and-goal with a three-point deficit and less than a minute remaining wasn’t a viable option.

Should he throw the ball away to set up a tying field goal, which would likely mean that this bruising showdown between the NFL’s top two defenses would extend to overtime?

Forget about it.

Photo Roethlisberger is pursued by the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs.
(AP Photo/Rob Carr)

“You know me,” Roethlisberger said afterward in a cleared-out visitors locker room at M&T Bank Stadium. “I hold onto the ball too long. Throw it away early and go for the field goal, or keep running around and try to win it? I chose the second option, ‘cause that’s how I am. Oh well.”

If the fifth-year quarterback couldn’t resist taking a jab at his critics in that context, it was hard not to excuse him. Roethlisberger had just willed his team to a 13-9 victory over the Ravens that clinched the AFC North title and put the Steelers (11-3) in position to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, all by drawing on the same improvisational skills that some analysts have cited as a flaw in his game.

So yeah, Big Ben may absorb a few extra takedowns behind the line of scrimmage, but there’s no denying that he has a lot of sack when his team needs him most.

Having driven the Steelers from their own 8-yard line to the brink of a season-defining victory against the NFL’s second-ranked defense, Roethlisberger wanted no part of a throwaway. After he saw “everything collapse” and decided against running it in, Roethlisberger bought time by rolling back to his right. He then coolly fired a hard pass on the run to wideout Santonio Holmes, who caught it while standing in the end zone but appeared to be pushed back to the 1 by Baltimore safety Ed Reed before the ball broke the plane.

In a highly controversial replay reversal, referee Walt Coleman ruled that Holmes, as he told a pool reporter afterward, “had two feet down and completed the catch with control of the ball breaking the plane of the goal line.” This was, in the eyes of Ravens fans, a cross between grand larceny and an optical illusion.

“Don’t get me started,” said Olympic swimming icon Michael Phelps – a man who knows a thing or two about incomprehensibly close calls – as he socialized with several Ravens players at a downtown Baltimore club Sunday night.

Whatever its merit, Coleman’s call deprived the crowd of 71,502 from witnessing a mano a mano snap to decide the game – several Pittsburgh players said coach Mike Tomlin planned to go for it – and, after William Gay’s end-zone interception of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco with eight seconds remaining, consigned Baltimore (9-5) to chasing a wild-card berth.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh travels to Nashville to face the Tennessee Titans (12-2) next Sunday for first place in the conference. “Everything we’ve played for all season, so far, is right there in front of us,” inside linebacker James Farrior says. “Now we’ve got to go get it.”

It’s the latest in a seemingly endless series of epic encounters for the Steelers, and guess who’s feeling confident about his team’s chances?

“You’ve got to have that swagger,” Roethlisberger says. “Playing all these tough games, it’s not going to make us any weaker. We’re getting stronger and stronger every week, whereas last year we were getting weaker as the year dragged on. At this stage last year we felt like we were tired.”

The 2007 AFC North champion Steelers lost three of their final four regular season games, then suffered a 31-29 home defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars in their playoff opener.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh earned its fifth consecutive victory and reaffirmed the notion that no NFL team will be as battle-tested or prepared to pull out a tight game come playoff time.

“We’ve been in so many of them,” Tomlin said as he walked through the locker room offering congratulations to his players. “There’s no way to prepare yourself for it other than to go through them, and winning it at the end is something we’ve come to expect. When we get in that situation we feel like we’ve got a job to do, and we embrace the moment.”

Given that the Steelers’ defense had keyed the previous Sunday’s comeback victory over the Cowboys, Roethlisberger and the rest of Pittsburgh’s offensive players felt an obligation to seize the moment. Said halfback Willie Parker: “The defense went out and played hardball. We came up big on the last play. I guess we got the glory, but they made it all possible.”

As with the Steelers’ Week 4 overtime victory over the Ravens, their top-ranked defense and opportunistic offense seemed to have achieved a perfect symbiosis. After linebacker Lawrence Timmons’ sack and forced fumble knocked the Ravens out of field-goal range with just over four minutes to go, Holmes called for a fair catch of Sam Koch’s punt at his own 8.

Roethlisberger radiated confidence in the huddle, relishing the chance to go deep to Holmes on the first play. The Ravens, however, had tight coverage on Pittsburgh’s deep threat, causing Roethlisberger (22 of 40, 246 yards, three sacks) to look elsewhere. Fortunately for the Steelers, he found St. Elsewhere – or, as wideout Hines Ward is known in Baltimore, Satan In Cleats – in heavy traffic on the right side.

Ward (eight catches, 107 yards) reached up to make a terrific grab, energizing his teammates with the 13-yard gain. He made another nice catch for 13 more on the following play, but Pittsburgh soon faced third-and-10 on its own 34. Roethlisberger stayed cool and relied upon his mobility to buy time before finding Nate Washington on the left side for a 16-yard gain.

Photo Holmes gets pushed back over the goal line by Reed.
(Getty/Jim McIsaac)

Later, after a 24-yard completion to Washington set up first down at the Baltimore 14, Roethlisberger went to Ward once again, hitting him underneath and watching the physical wideout ramble to the 4. After a spike and an incompletion it was time for one of the biggest plays of Big Ben’s five-year career – though had Holmes’ catch not been ruled a touchdown, a potential sneak (or handoff or play-action pass) on fourth-and-inches might’ve been even bigger.

“We were going to go for it,” Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu confirmed afterward. “We had to. We had made the decision, because that’s how it had to be. You don’t deserve to go to the Super Bowl, to the playoffs, if you don’t have the guts to do that. I think [the Ravens] really would’ve respected that, whether we made it or not.”

Said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis: “We would’ve loved that. What a way to decide a great game.”

Unfortunately for the man who carried Baltimore to the franchise’s lone championship eight seasons ago, it didn’t go down that way. Now Lewis and the Ravens must concentrate on their Saturday night battle with the Cowboys, as the two teams most recently stung by the Steelers close Texas Stadium while battling for their respective playoff lives.

After Sunday, their counterparts in black-and-gold can’t help but set their sights even higher.

“There’ve been a lot of people who’ve criticized our offense – it’s not flashy, and we’ve had our rough moments – but as a team we’re all in this together,” Ward said as he walked to the team bus. “And what better way to win it than to take it 92 yards against the Baltimore Ravens, in their house? That’s the best feeling in the world. And with a leader like Ben, we know we’re capable of anything.”

Get ready, Music City. Right now, no one in the NFL is making more noise than the Steelers, and you know they’ll embrace the moment.