A New Kind of Quarterback

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.

Both Indianapolis and Minnesota have this figured out. Both played one-back-three-receiver football Monday night. And both threw the ball effectively. They didn't throw it often enough, to be sure, considering the sorry state of their defenses, but that's another story. At least they both know how to run.

Ram Pass Offense, Not Play-Calling, Best

THE ST. LOUIS RAMS with the best pass design in football — and some of the best pass-offense personnel of recent NFL years — are for familiar reasons only 4-4 as they start the second half of the schedule against division-rival Seattle Sunday. The Ram problem is play-calling.

Through three years and two Super Bowls, Coach Mike Martz has shown that he's the best passing coach football has yet seen, but, now, he wants to integrate running plays with pass plays and can't find the right recipe. In their big years, the Rams didn't need a running game. And now, every week, they're proving that they still don't understand the problem.

Thus, Martz has been operating a schizoid offense. Running the ball when defenses expect a run, he bulks up with tight ends and blocking backs. Then, passing the ball when defenses expect him to pass, he takes out the beef and inserts more speed.

The result is that, at the start of most of their offensive series, the Rams — instead of passing aggressively to take a lead, as they once did — are now wasting downs with power runs into run defenses. Falling behind, they try to catch up by passing into pass defenses; and with quarterback Marc Bulger a sitting duck in the pocket, sacks are inevitable. And the offensive line takes the blame.

A 40-22 loser again last Sunday, Martz could have taken New England with two simple play-calling changes.

First, he could have more often parlayed first-down passes, as he did for the only touchdown scored by the Rams when in the first three quarters the game was on the line. That time, 59 yards away from a touchdown, Martz called a beautiful first-down, fake-pass, fake-draw-play bomb that advanced the Rams to the Patriot 11. There, where Martz has lately tried to run the ball on futile power plays, he called a first-down touchdown pass, Marc Bulger to Isaac Bruce, a play on which Bruce was in the clear by five yards in all directions.

Second, Martz could have made the Ram running game an integral part of the passing game by lining up in a pass formation even on running downs. Twice, he did do that, most notably when the Rams spread the defense with four wide receivers on a two-point conversion try and then sent Marshall Faulk scooting straight ahead for the points.

Passing is what the Rams do best — better than anyone — and the most effective way for a passing team to run is to:

1) Threaten pass on every running play with three or four wide receivers (as Indianapolis and Minnesota both did Monday night.) This pays off particularly in short yardage.

2) As a general rule, run on passing downs and pass on running downs.

The most effective way to play offensive football, as the Rams proved long ago, is to pass aggressively at, say, the start of each game, striking for the lead while defenses are bulked up and psyched up to stop the run. Whenever the Rams have come out in their best basic formation — with one back and three wide receivers (Indianapolis' basic set Monday night) — at least one wide receiver has customarily been open.

But that hasn't been the Ram way lately.

On any Ram first down, a power run is a wasted play. Even if the runner pounds out a decent five yards, which essentially never happens, the offensive team has thrown away the best passing down.

On every first down, the defense has to honor the run, and Martz is free to choose from his endless selection of marvelous pass plays, short, mid-range and long.

On first down, Bulger can neutralize the blitz by alternating one-step, three-step, five-step and seven-step drops or with a short rollout in either direction.

Football fans across the nation, who fondly remember the magic of The Greatest Show on Turf, would love to see the results of a one-game experiment in which Martz never fielded fewer than three wide receivers on any down. The pass would be there. And so would the run.