Sunday, December 04, 2011

Facing Roethlisberger offers opportunity for Bengals

Young team can prove its mettle by defeating Big Ben

by Paul Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer
December 4, 2011

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 27: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers passes during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 27, 2011 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

As they approach Sunday's game at Pittsburgh, the Bengals are a team on the cusp. This isn't a "statement" game or a "manhood" game. As much as we hype it as a key to their playoff hopes, it's not that, either. The 7-4 Bengals can lose to Pittsburgh and still finish 10-6, which should be good enough for the postseason.

It will be revealing, though. One team is young and improving, exceeding expectations in a way that foretells a shiny future. The other is aging and proud and living as much on its wits as its ability. The Bengals and Steelers are two teams passing on a staircase. The Bengals are heading up.

At some point, the Bengals should surpass Pittsburgh, at least for a few seasons. The wonder is when. It could be as soon as Sunday. Probably not, though. The Bengals don't have Ben.

Ben Roethlisberger has a quarterback's arm on a tight end's body, complete with Fred Astaire's feet. He has the fearlessness of a wideout running across the middle. Roethlisberger isn't Aaron Rodgers, who throws passes you could hang on a wall. He's not a classic like Peyton Manning. He's more like who Tim Tebow could be, if Tebow ever learned to play the NFL way.

He has a trophy case of How'd-he-do-that moments. In a quarterbacks league, Roethlisberger is in the perfect situation, on the perfect team for his talents. A team with a weak-link offensive line, whose running game isn't as good as its reputation, paired with a quarterback who slides in the pocket like a puck on ice and who's OK with contact. Most NFL QBs, working behind Pittsburgh's offensive line, would look like a peace of rotten fruit by now.

If Roethlisberger had time to throw, he wouldn't know what to do with it. He'd probably run around, anyway.

"(Brett) Favre could do these things," Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is saying. But Favre wasn't 6-foot-5. "Ben doesn't mind getting hit, His ability to extend plays is remarkable."

There was a play in Pittsburgh's too-close 13-9 win at Kansas City Sunday night that said all that needed saying. It was the only touchdown of the game. From the Chiefs 2-yard line, Roethlisberger dropped back, scanned everything and saw nothing he liked. At that point, some three seconds into the play, most QBs start looking for an exit and a row of seats where they can aim an uncatchable pass.

Not Roethlisberger. He waits and waits. He has a rusher bearing down on him. He waits some more. "We've had guys come at him from the blind side," Zimmer says. "He just kind of felt it and spun around it." Just like he did Sunday night. Roethlisberger made the smallest of moves, the slightest reconfiguration of steps, matadore'd a bull rusher and was free for another half-second. It was all he needed.

"The ability to feel the rusher come clean on the hug, sidestep him, keep his vision downfield, knowing he was going to have to wait for that guy to come open" was how Marvin Lewis defined the play.

The pass went to a rookie tight end named Weslye Saunders. Roethlsberger put it the only place it could be. "The coverage was good," Lewis noted. Thread, meet needle.

It's not just the tiny dancing, though, that makes Roethlisberger unique. He is a big man who doesn't mind getting hit. All this week, Zimmer has preached to his troops, "Run through him!" Meaning, anything less than full-frontal dedication will not work. "You're not going to arm-tackle him," Zimmer explains.

"You grab his jersey, it starts to slip. You not only have to be careful how you rush him, you have to be careful how you tackle him. If you leave your feet, bad things are going to happen."

Zimmer calls it "streetball mode." Roethlisberger eludes the first wave of rushers, leaves the pocket, then makes it up as a he goes along. "When the protection breaks down and he breaks out, you never really know where the ball is going.

"There's a big difference between feeling the rush and eluding it," says Zimmer. "The bad quarterbacks feel it and take off. Ben feels it and eludes it, or takes the hit."

Compared to Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco is an inanimate object. "There's no clock with him. It's not like you get to three or four seconds (after the snap) and stop rushing," Zimmer says.

The Bengals are in Pittsburgh Sunday, with an eye toward validating who they believe they've become, in this most surprising and satisfying of seasons. Their hopes will hinge on a rookie quarterback who has been very good, but who is not yet Ben. Roethlisberger is the only clear edge the Steelers have Sunday. It's a huge edge.

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