The Pittsburgh Steelers, suddenly the best football team in the land, can't have an undefeated season this year — they've already lost once — but they can have an undefeated quarterback. He is Ben Roethlisberger, a jumbo-sized Joe Montana-type whose passes fall as gently into the right hands as Montana's ever did.

A cool, quick, quick-thinking rookie, Roethlisberger, already 6-0 in the NFL going into the Cleveland game next Sunday, fits the Steelers as if born to play in Pittsburgh. When he came to them last summer, providing precisely what Coach Bill Cowher lacked and needs, they otherwise were (as they remain) one of football's great teams, perhaps right now the greatest.

As the Philadelphia Eagles discovered in 27-3 defeat last Sunday, the Steelers' offensive line is their strength.

Cowher also fields a wholly successful 3-4 defense that hinges on USC-trained safety Troy Polamalu and four large, fast linebackers.

And in the scoring department, the Steelers have assembled four big guns, wide receivers Hines Ward and 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress and running backs Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. Six weeks ago, Cowher, looking at his 1-1 team, could count on every man but one. And since then, that one has won them all. Not that Roethlisberger is Cowher's first good passer. Todd Blackledge, Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox seemed promising too. But for whatever reason, they didn't quite fit. Big Ben fits.




Steelers' Soft Passes Identify New Passer

AS THE STEELERS asked the big guy to throw the ball half the time on first down, Roethlisberger hit the Eagles Sunday with a pair of touchdown passes in an aggressive 21-3 first half that showcased a new kind of quarterback. Never in pro football has there been an era when such soft, easy passes flowed out of the grip of a passer of that size (6 feet 5, 242 pounds). There was no zip whatever on Roethlisberger's fastball, just fluidity and great accuracy. He simply laid the ball out there at the right time precisely and usually in the right spot. With Roethlisberger in their pass offense, the Steelers call no deep crossing patterns, no deep square-ins or square-outs. Football fans looking for power passes must look elsewhere.

Even Roethlisberger's occasional bombs arrive as soft floaters. For, whereas power passers are typically as big-armed as Brett Favre, Roethlisberger is equipped with the small arms of a much smaller man. In Pittsburgh, offseason project No. 1 seems indicated: intensive physical conditioning for their big new quarterback, who, however, the way he is, would have been drafted first, ahead of Eli Manning, if he'd attended Michigan, say, rather than Miami of Ohio. They tell you in Ohio that when Michigan and Ohio State finally recruited him, Roethlisberger had by then promised to play for the only school that had known about him, and had called him, earlier, Miami. To Roethlisberger, a promise is apparently a promise. He looks to be that type.

In defense of their 18-point lead, the Steelers, in the second half of the Eagle game, ran the clock with Bettis except on third-down plays. And though third down normally means heavy pressure on the passer, as it did this time, and though third down should therefore always belong to the defensive team — which on that down knows pass plays are imminent — Roethlisberger nonetheless hit most of his in the second half as he and Bettis preserved their first-half momentum, moving the cautious Steelers to a pair of field goals. That finished off undefeated Philadelphia, reminding onlookers that, a week earlier, the Steelers had as surely dominated undefeated New England.




Coordinators Take Charge of Cowher's Team

COWHER HAS THREE new secret weapons, in all, in his 13th year as the NFL's senior head coach. The key is Roethlisberger. Second, Cowher himself seems to have mellowed and is now beloved by all his players. Or maybe that's been true right along. Maybe he's naturally gruff but good-hearted. And, third, he has reorganized the coaching staff, putting two assistants in full command. They are offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, a clever jumped-up tight end who has taken charge of offense, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a former NFL head coach who has rejoined the Steelers to take defense off Cowher's hands.

One mark of a heads-up offensive coordinator is whether he's ready with special plays for special occasions, particularly early on when a game is on the line. And last Sunday, Whisenhunt was ready twice with the calls that produced Pittsburgh's first two touchdowns. The first such play, sent in after Roethlisberger had passed Pittsburgh down the field, was a surprise reverse that Ward ran for 16 yards and a 7-0 lead. Reverses don't always or even usually succeed. They typically work only when there's no good reason to look for a reverse. For his second number, Whisenhunt played on the defensive tendencies of the Eagles, who, as Roethlisberger passed to Ward for a 20-yard touchdown, didn't pursue him on a double-motion pass play that did look a bit screwy, as if Ward were confused. Never bet on that.

LeBeau is one of several sound defensive coordinators now at work in the NFL. His forte, the unusual blitz, involved all 11 potential rushers last Sunday in one or another charge at the passer. On one play, LeBeau sent three Steelers on an outside blitz from the same side of the line. That rush, combining a Pittsburgh linebacker, cornerback and safety — none taking the shorter inside route — overwhelmed the Eagles. By comparison, the Eagle defense usually blitzed from the wrong side of the scrimmage line as Roethlisberger or sometimes Bettis made big plays the other way. Thus LeBeau demonstrated again that one mark of a heads-up defensive coordinator is that his team looks as if it knows what it's doing. That's also true of an effective offensive line coach, and Cowher has one of those too, Russ Grimm, the former Washington hog whom he has elevated to assistant head coach. No surprise that the offensive line makes the Steelers what they are.




Colts Know How to Run One-Back Football

THE INDIANAPOLIS COLTS, who won a 31-28 game from Minnesota Monday night, might not have enough defense to last long in the playoffs this winter. But they've been showing the league how to run the ball from scrimmage. Again against Minnesota, in the Colts' basic formation, they didn't have a a blocking back on the field.

Instead, lining up with one running back behind the quarterback, the Colts attacked the Viking defense with three wide receivers. As running back Edgerrin James carried 26 times for 123 yards, his wide receivers tore off in all directions, taking along the Minnesota people assigned to cover them — the very people who could have been tackling James.

Thus, as James averaged more than 4.6 yards a carry, he was frequently racing through cleared ground after taking handoffs from quarterback Peyton Manning and choosing the most promising open spaces in the Viking line.

Football's conservatives, by contrast, are still trying to ram holes in the defense with fullbacks or blocking backs assigned to lead their ballcarriers through the line. In this system, the blocker, not the running back, chooses the hole — which isn't always the runner's preference — and the choice has to be made two steps earlier, often before a better hole opens.

The truth is that, most of the time, a blocking back simply gets in the way of the running back. Moreover, he's usually blocking a linebacker — the very player who comes out of the game, anyway, when a third wide receiver forces the defense to insert a fifth defensive back.