A Wing and a Player | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Wing and a Player

Be thankful for Ben's ability to improvise

Oh, the bounty of goodies cooking in Pittsburgh. It smells like ... victory. Or at least it smells better than that turd the Steelers laid in New York just in time for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Still, in Pittsburgh, we can be thankful for a veritable cornucopia of sports delights -- even when the climate is bitter.

There's the freshman class in Pitt's football and basketball programs, with electrifying running back LeSean McCoy on the field and scary-good forward DeJuan Blair on the court. There are the sublime talents on display at Mellon Arena, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin where they belong -- among the top five point-scorers in the NHL. With so much talent, wins will start coming in bunches. Eventually.

But this is Pittsburgh, and the main dish this time of year is always the Steelers. And there is nothing for which fans should be more grateful than the health and magnificence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

He's rarely lauded for his football smarts: Instead, he's often regarded as a big, strong guy with a strong arm who relies solely on physical gifts and doesn't exactly dissect a defense. It's an unfair assessment.

Roethlisberger has been finding the weak spots of defenses, particularly against divisional foes. During Cleveland's recent visit to Heinz Field, he made perfect reads on his two touchdown passes, first noting the blitzing defensive back lined up on Hines Ward, then tossing the ball to Ward over the defender's head. Later, seeing Heath Miller release a Browns rusher, niftily sidestepping that same defender, and firing a perfectly timed pass that put his team ahead for good.

A few weeks earlier, in Cincinnati, Roethlisberger's pump fake sucked in cornerback Leon Hall, again leaving Ward wide open for six. So much for thinking Roethlisberger doesn't out-smart defenses.

Contributing to Ben's lofty stats is his impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio, with 23 touchdown throws to just eight picks. Even his most vocal national skeptics are eating crow as Roethlisberger's heady passer rating lags behind only the gold-standard that is New England's Tom Brady. And without diminishing Brady's achievements, QB ratings measure only throwing efficiency, not necessary quarterback play in its totality. And that's where Roethlisberger really shines.

New England's line is arguably the best unit in the NFL, yielding only 10 sacks. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger has been sacked 30 times, due to a balky offensive line whose weakness was highlighted in the horrid display of blocking (if you can call it that) against the Jets. How many more sacks might there be if not for Roethlisberger's uncanny ability to shed defenders as he did in Cincinnati, completing a key third-down pass with defensive tackle John Thornton literally hanging on his calf? Or as he did versus the Ravens, stepping out of Trevor Pryce's grip to launch a TD strike to Miller, the first of five?

Something in Roethlisberger seems to respond to such adversity. I happened upon this tendency the first time I saw him play. It was a weeknight MAC conference game during his final year at Miami (Ohio). The rain was coming in sheets at a 45-degree slant, obscuring certain television angles. Yet there Roethlisberger was, chucking the ball 40 yards down the field. On a rope.

Fast-forward to his first pro start, in a hurricane in Miami. Then to the most recent Monday-night grudge match against the Ravens. What's it all mean? He's a mudder. Bad weather seems to bring out the best in him. With Roethlisberger at the top of his game, rainy days and Mondays don't bring me down anymore.

Roethlisberger wins games by using both his head and his legs, moving around to buy time, seemingly always making a silk purse of a pigskin's ear. Like the Sundance Kid, he's better when he's moving. Even so, the offensive line may want to re-think the plan to give him so many, uh, opportunities to improvise and scramble.

So far, Roethlisberger has been making his divisional foes look like turkeys, thanks to an off-season spent in preparation and training, rather than in hospitals and recuperation. Now, if he could count on at least minimal blocking, and a little bit of rain ...