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Quarterbacks Ride Streaks Into Matchup

Special to The Times

Big Ben Roethlisberger versus the distinguished Donovan McNabb: Now there’s a matchup made in heaven.

The halfway point of the pro football season brings together quarterbacks who are still unbeaten.

One is a 242-pound, 6-foot-5 rookie -- Roethlisberger, who has won all five of his starts for the 6-1 Pittsburgh Steelers.

His opponent, McNabb, is a 240-pound, 6-foot-2 veteran of six NFL seasons who has won all the way this year for the 7-0 Philadelphia Eagles.

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Philadelphia figures to win again, and the difference could well be Terrell Owens, the best receiver in the league.

But if Pittsburgh somehow wins, Roethlisberger may never be stopped. The Steelers in the last half of the season play Cleveland, Cincinnati, Washington, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Buffalo, and the two New York teams -- all of which have had some trouble this fall.

In their most recent appearances, McNabb and Owens held on to beat Baltimore, 15-10, and Roethlisberger presided during Pittsburgh’s surprising 34-20 victory over New England, which ended the Patriots’ record winning streak at 21.

The Steelers won largely because, with running back Corey Dillon out with an injury, the Patriots lost their vital ground-game threat.

Then too, Roethlisberger again gave the Steelers what they have missed most since Coach Bill Cowher began to open up his offense several years ago: a quarterback with superb passing skills and the instincts of a born leader.

Before discovering Roethlisberger, the Steelers could block, run, catch and defend, but they couldn’t throw the ball with consistent brilliance. Lately, they’ve been doing that.

Their upset last week could only have materialized in a passing era. Running teams can’t do what the Steelers have been doing. And it could only have been accomplished by a coach with a double-barreled pass-run threat. That, surprising his conservative old friends, is Cowher.

Better Than Waterfield?

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The Steelers aren’t yet on the same road the old Cleveland Rams traveled in 1945 when they wound up in the NFL championship game -- the 1940s equivalent of the Super Bowl -- and won it with a rookie quarterback, Bob Waterfield.

But so far, Roethlisberger has been playing better football than almost any other rookie since Waterfield.

And he’s a better passer than Waterfield, the great all-around Hall of Famer.

In another respect, last week’s Patriot-Steeler game was also unique:

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When Roethlisberger carried the Steelers toward a 21-3 first-quarter lead with well-placed passes, and when, later, Cowher opted for running plays to protect a lead that grew to 34-13 in the third quarter, sports fans in Los Angeles didn’t see any of it on network TV.

For the second consecutive week, CBS shut L.A. viewers out of the NFL’s big game.

And these were historic games.

No NFL team had ever won 21 consecutively until two weeks ago, when New England set a record that had defied all other pro clubs for 85 years.

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And last Sunday, Pittsburgh became the only team in the NFL’s 85-year history to beat a 21-game winner.

If CBS could keep those games out of the L.A. market, it’s a good thing Fox has today’s Roethlisberger-McNabb matchup.

Quarterbacks Maturing

Football changes markedly from year to year and decade to decade.

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A rookie with Roethlisberger’s skills couldn’t have found himself on an NFL winning streak 30 years ago, when quarterbacks called their own plays.

In the years when quarterbacks made the calls, Hall of Fame passers Sammy Baugh and Johnny Unitas used to say that play calling was more than half the job.

The 1964 NFL champion’s quarterback, Dr. Frank Ryan of Cleveland, which upset Unitas’ Baltimore Colts that year in the title game, said the making of a pro quarterback took seven years.

Coaches often insist that it takes five years -- “at least” -- to make a pro quarterback. So how could Roethlisberger do it in five games?

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Obviously, he has the talent, as well as a coach who will let a rookie throw.

But more than that, football has changed. During the 1900-50 era, for example, when NFL rules restricted substitution, many of this season’s best receivers -- including Roethlisberger’s -- couldn’t have participated. They simply lack the skill and size to play defense.

In recent years, though, college coaches have embraced pass offense. Now, college coaches teach passing as diligently as they once taught blocking and tackling.

On every major college and pro team, today’s quarterbacks have personal coaches. One NFL team hires no fewer than three quarterback coaches who are on the job either full- or part-time.

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In the Vince Lombardi era, the 1960s, pro clubs hired no more than five or six coaches. Today they have 19 or 20.

The upshot is that quarterbacks can mature in a hurry if they have Roethlisberger’s talent, and if they have a coach who believes in passing.

Two-Way Threats

Dillon’s absence from the Patriot lineup last week demonstrated again that every team needs a prominent two-way threat.

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It graphically showed that a great pass offense works best with the threat of a first-class runner. That’s why Patriot Coach Bill Belichick brought Dillon in this year.

First down is critical, the question for the defense being whether a good offensive team will be running or passing.

On first down, if the offense has made a mystery of its tendencies, no defense can forecast what’s coming. It must, as a rule, prepare for both a run and a pass. Most of the game’s recent champions have learned that defensive teams are more vulnerable to pass plays on first down than at any other time.

An offensive objective -- staying in first down on play after play -- can often be met by parlaying an assortment of long and short passes.

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No offense can avoid second and third down forever, of course, but the strategy should be unchanged: passing on running downs (first and 10, third and one) and running on passing downs (second and 10, third and four.)

To succeed, a passing team needs to continuously confront the defense with a running back such as Dillon or Edgerrin James.

The Patriots, after winning an unprecedented 21 in a row, lost No. 22 because Dillon had a bad foot.

Ravens Lack Offense

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The Baltimore Ravens lost a nationally televised game to McNabb and the undefeated Eagles last Sunday because Raven Coach Brian Billick is still trying to win with his defensive team -- and without enough passing.

One of the worst things that happened to Billick was winning the ’01 Super Bowl with quarterback Trent Dilfer. That gave him the idea that he could win with any quarterback, as long as he continued to field a great defense.

The problem with aiming to win with defense is that air-tight defense can’t be played in every minute of every quarter.

In the Raven-Eagle game, McNabb and Owens couldn’t often break the Raven defense, but they burst through once or twice -- and on a low-scoring day, that was sufficient because Baltimore’s quarterback, Kyle Boller, was insufficient.

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Boller looks as if he has the arm to play longball, but it takes more than an arm.

And, for whatever reason, the Ravens have him doing something else virtually all the time.

Against Philadelphia, he conducted the shortest short-pass game of the year. His passes crossed the line of scrimmage by no more than four or five yards.

That isn’t a short-pass offense as conceived by the better teams. It’s a give-up offense.

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Game of the Mind

The New York Jets won an easy one Monday night, outplaying the Miami Dolphins, 41-14, in a laugher illustrating that football is at times a game of the mind more than of muscle.

A week earlier, the Jets had lost in New England by seven points when, at just the right time in the second half, the Patriot defense was ready for the Jets’ favorite long pass play -- Chad Pennington to Wayne Chrebet down the middle.

Belichick somehow knew it was coming, and just when it was coming, and positioned two Patriot defensive backs where Chrebet couldn’t get to the ball.

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That, however, didn’t discourage the Jets, who hauled the play out again Monday night and used it to take a quick, early 7-0 lead.

The Dolphins, like the Patriots, are a reputed defensive power, though it was clear when Chrebet darted into the end zone that they aren’t as savvy as the Patriots.

In fact, the Jets scored so easily on Miami that they lost interest in playing on.

They only woke up when, shortly before halftime, the Dolphins somehow scored the tying touchdown, 7-7.

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The Jets, their heads in the game at last, retaliated with 17 points in the next 10 minutes to take a 24-7 lead. And this time, seemingly afraid of Miami’s erratic passer, Jay Fiedler, they kept their wits until the end and kept pouring it on.


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