The Pittsburgh Steelers, as led by second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, have seemed to be the NFL's obviously best active team since the night when, earlier in the playoffs, New England's luck disappeared in Denver.
En route to almost certain victory in the Super Bowl, the Steelers illustrated first of all Sunday --- when they conquered Denver, 34-17 --- the value of a good quarterback. For, without Roethlisberger, they're just another good football team, one of many in the AFC.
Big Ben transforms the Steelers into champions --- do-everything champions who play sound defense, run the ball with passion, and throw with brilliance.
Passing brilliance is something new for their leader, Bill Cowher, who has coached Pittsburgh for 12 years while always falling short of Super Bowl championships.
For, with rare exceptions, he's stayed with the defense-and-running game he loves --- until this year, when, finally, he told Roethlisberger that passing is permitted in key games.
Even last year, the Steelers were mostly Cowher's kind of team, reserving Roethlisberger's passes primarily for third down --- the traditional way of running teams.
This year, whenever they've had to pass assertively to compete, Cowher, gritting, has assented, and that's what's made the difference on this team. The Steelers have won their last two the new Steeler way, upsetting the Colts and Broncos with aggressive first-half passing and defense to get a lead. Each time, in the second half, they've run the ball to hold the lead while playing more passively on defense. Expect the same against the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Hasselbeck Spins Consecutive Big Games
THE STEELERS may have only one flaw. Because their receivers aren't the NFL's fastest, thy seldom throws the long long pass. The Seattle Seahawks showed somewhat more affinity for that kind of football Sunday when they eliminated the Carolina Panthers, 34-14, on another big passing day for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
A West Coast Offense team, the Seahawks prefer to mix Hasselbeck's short-range passes with runs by Shaun Alexander ---who had a 132-yard game this time --- but Carolina's defensive strength is aggressive cornerback play. And the Seattle coach, Mike Holmgren, designed a game plan to counter that.
Holmgren often had his receivers running two-step or double-move patterns --- hitch-and-go routes, for example, or post-corner patterns --- and when Carolina's defensive backs bit (as they say) on first moves, Seahawk receivers darted away on second moves to catch Haselbeck's well-placed longer passes.
Hasselbeck, who a week earlier had led Seattle past Washington, 20-10, has had two big passing games in a row against teams that didn't put up much fight. The Panther quarterback, Jake Delhomme, is an erratic passer who has lost his runners to injury and who only has one receiver, Steve Smith.
Carolina is, in fact, a one-man team --- the man is Smith --- who was taken out of the game by the Seattle defense. Along the way, doubling as a punt returner, Smith carried one in for a touchdown.
It was Carolina's only touchdown until the game was far advanced in front of Seattle's boisterous fans. The Steelers have had no such fan help. A wild-card team, they've played and won three road games in a row. They'll be ready for a fourth one.
Interceptions Bother Plummer Too Much
ONE KEY DIFFERENCE between the Steelers and Broncos in Denver was manifest in a second-quarter sequence that demonstrated why Rothlisberger is already more quarterback than Denver's veteran, Jake Plummer, who, in his biggest season, took the Broncos about as far as he can.
First, the Steelers, on a long drive, had reached the Denver 15-yard line when on third and nine their coaches called a complicated pass play for Roethlisberger. Before throwing a touchdown strike that time to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, Roethlisberger was required to fake a shorter pass, pumping the ball to momentarily freeze a covering Bronco cornerback.
Second, the Broncos, in substantially the same field position a few minutes later, showed a stunning lack of confidence in their quarterback. After a couple of incompletes, they called a running play on third and 10, settling for the field goal that reduced Pittsburgh's lead to 10-3.
The Steelers won in part because of their expansive game plan featuring many such cleverly designed plays. The Broncos lost in part because their coaches can't design a whole offense for Plummer, who is severely limited in the pocket, and who tries too hard to avoid interceptions despite the reality that for passing teams, interceptions are part of life.
Steelers Dominant in Football Essentials
PITTSBURGH PROVED to be a better ballclub than Denver in the real Super Bowl game, which was played two weeks before the actual Super Bowl. The next one, Feb. 5, has for many months figured as a tough test for any NFC team, meaning the conference survivor. Seattle is simply the survivor in an off year for the NFC.
After the earlier elimination of the Patriots with Tom Brady as well as the Colts with Peyton Manning, Pittsburgh and Denver were the NFL's best teams still standing. And in the Denver-Pittsburgh showdown, the Steelers threw the ball with more authority than Denver, ran it with more success when they had to, and played better defense.
An essential reason for the Broncos' failure in playoff games lately in Denver and Indianapolis is that when they fall behind, they have to change the way they play. They lose the dominant part of their running game, their stretch-play offense, which Plummer balances with rollouts the other way. Instead, to come from behind, the Broncos need accurate pocket passing on play after play, and Plummer is no Tom Brady.
The Steelers, by contrast, now they have Roethlisberger, can stick with the same offense win, lose or draw. They need only increase the number of Rothlisberger's passes to move the ball. That makes a tremendous difference. Whereas Denver with Plummer needs two offenses, Pittsburgh need polish only one.
Roethlisberger, who at 6 feet 7 is bigger than most linebackers, has a knack for doing everything that any football team could expect of a quarterback. In Denver, he seemed almost equally adept as a pocket passer and as a scrambler, once scrambling left while throwing hard accurately to his right for a touchdown. And on one 80-yard drive to a Jerome Bettis touchdown Sunday, Roethlisberger remarkably completed four third-down passes. He also scored on a designed sweep that looked like a scramble, and he seldom missed an open target at any distance. His ball-handling, while not as showy as Manning's, was as effective.
The fact is that, last year, Roethlisberger was about this good as a rookie. It wasn't inexperience that held him back. It was conservative coaching. He was ordinarily only asked to pass on third down, and it's a rare passer who can work well consistently on such plays. In NFL games, third down normally belongs to the defense. Big Ben in his second professional season is sometimes the exception.
Carolina: Legend in South (Not North)
CAROLINA IS THE latest NFC team to play disappointing football in a spotlighted game, as it did in Seattle. The Panthers are a legendary defensive power in the NFL's southern divisions, but they didn't show much strength in the northwest.
And as a one-man team with one of the league's great receiver-runners, Smith, they made you wonder what the other southern teams have been trying to do defensively against an opponent that only has one bothersome pass-catcher.
It doesn't seem difficult to put two or three linebackers and defensive backs on any receiver, as Seattle did against Smith, if there's nothing much else for a defensive team to worry about. The trick is to assign different groups of defensive players to Smith at different times, which Seattle did, rendering him a non-factor.
In terms of the future, the most impressive thing about the Seahawks was their quarterback, Hasselbeck,who alternately played good West Coast Offense and the downfield passing game. He moved around like Joe Montana, but threw better downfield passes than Montana's. This year, in short, Holmgren has finally discovered Hasselbeck
What's happened in Seattle is that when Alexander was injured and forced out of a recent game, Hasselbeck showed that to complete passes and to compete, he doesn't need an All-Pro running back. Against NFC opponents, that is. His challenge is to do it against AFC champion Pittsburgh, and, that day, he'll welcome having Alexander.
Bob Oates is at email@example.com . . . For previous columns see latimes.com/oates