Ben Just Keeps Coming Up Big

Special to The Times

The Pittsburgh Steelers have seemed to be the NFL's best team since the night when, earlier in the playoffs, New England's luck disappeared in Denver.

The Steelers, en route to almost certain victory in the Super Bowl, illustrated first of all last week -- when they conquered Denver, 34-17 -- the value of an outstanding quarterback.

For without Ben Roethlisberger, they're just another good football team.

Big Ben transforms the Steelers into champions -- do-everything champions who play sound defense, run the ball with passion and throw with brilliance.

New to Cowher

Passing brilliance is something new for their leader, Bill Cowher, who has coached Pittsburgh for 12 years, always falling short of Super Bowl championships.

With rare exceptions, he's stayed with the defense-and-running game he loves -- until this season, when, finally, he told Roethlisberger that passing would be permitted in key games.

Even last season, the Steelers were mostly Cowher's kind of team, reserving then-rookie Roethlisberger's passes primarily for third down.

This year, whenever they've had to pass assertively to compete, Cowher, gritting his teeth, has assented, and that's what's made the difference.

The Steelers have won their last two games the new Steeler way, upsetting the Colts and Broncos with aggressive first-half passing and defense to get a lead. Then, 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.

Holmgren's Ideas

The Steelers may have only one flaw. Because their receivers aren't the NFL's fastest, they seldom throw the long pass.

The Seahawks showed somewhat more affinity for that kind of football last week 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 last Sunday -- but Carolina's defensive strength is aggressive cornerback play.

And Seattle's 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 on first moves, Seahawk receivers darted away on second moves to catch Hasselbeck's well-placed longer passes.

Panthers Erratic

Hasselbeck, who a week earlier had led Seattle past Washington, 20-10, has had two big passing games against teams that didn't put up much fight.

Panther quarterback Jake Delhomme is an erratic passer who has lost his runners to injury and who essentially has only one receiver, Steve Smith.

Carolina is, in fact, a one-man team -- the man is Smith -- and he 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 consecutive road games.

They'll be ready for a fourth one.

Plummer Falls Short

One key difference between the Steelers and Broncos in Denver came out in a second-quarter sequence that demonstrated why Roethlisberger is already more of a quarterback than Denver's veteran, Jake Plummer, who, in his biggest season, took the Broncos about as far as he could.

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 to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, Roethlisberger faked a shorter pass to momentarily freeze Bronco cornerback Champ Bailey.

Then, 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 sent in a running play on third and 10, settling for the field goal that reduced Pittsburgh's lead to 10-3.

Plummer, like Peyton Manning, is a superb front-runner, and Coach Mike Shanahan couldn't afford to fall too far behind.

As for Roethlisberger's scoring throw to Wilson, his coaches told him to pump-fake to fool Bailey, whose aggressive interception and 100-yard runback a week earlier had turned a critical playoff game away from New England.

The Steelers beat Denver 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, even though, for passing teams, interceptions are part of life.

Steelers Dominant

Pittsburgh proved to be a better team than Denver in what might be termed 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 and the Colts, 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.

Big Ben's Day

An essential reason for the Broncos' failure in playoff games lately is that when they fall behind, they have to change the way they play.

They lose the most important part of their running game, their stretch-play offense, which Plummer balances with rollouts the other way.

To come from behind, however, the Broncos need accurate pocket passing on play after play, and Plummer is no Tom Brady.

The Steelers, by contrast, now that they have Roethlisberger, can stick with the same offense, win, lose or draw. They need only to increase the number of Roethlisberger'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 5 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 and accurately to his right for a touchdown.

And on one 80-yard drive ending in a Jerome Bettis touchdown last week, 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, not as showy as Manning's, was every bit as effective.

The fact is that Roethlisberger was about this good as a rookie. It wasn't inexperience that held him back. It was conservative coaching.

Carolina Disappoints

Carolina is the latest NFC team to play disappointing football in a spotlighted game, which it did in Seattle.

The Panthers are a legendary defensive power in the South, but they didn't show much strength in the North.

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 has only one bothersome pass-catcher.

It doesn't seem difficult to put a combination of two or three defensive backs and linebackers 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.

Hasselbeck Discovered

The most impressive thing about the Seahawks was their quarterback, Hasselbeck, who alternately played good downfield passing football and good West Coast offense.

He moved around like Joe Montana, but threw better downfield passes than Montana's.

This year, 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 on that day, no doubt, he'll be glad to have Alexander.

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