Roethlisberger's encore not an easy feat to repeat

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August 11, 2005|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

LATROBE, Pa. - Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a mantra memorized for when he's asked about the obvious.

When you go 13-0 in the regular season as a rookie, what do you do for an encore?

Roethlisberger's unprecedented year, when he helped the Steelers run the regular-season table after a Week 2 loss to the Ravens, has seemingly robbed him of all the normal benchmarks any other maturing quarterback would expect to hit over the course of, say, his first three years.

"We can be a better football team and I can be a better quarterback, and we may not have a 15-1 record," Roethlisberger said this week after a training camp practice. "People have to realize that, even though it may be hard for them."

The caveat has become the Steelers' party line after a bittersweet 2004 season, when they enjoyed their best regular season in team history but ended with a 41-27 loss at home in the AFC title game to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. No doubt the Steelers would settle for a less gaudy record if they could win their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy.

"The important thing is just to try to go out and improve every week," said the second-year pro from Miami, Ohio.

After taking over for injured veteran Tommy Maddox, Roethlisberger didn't just perform extraordinarily well for a rookie last season, he wound up setting single-season Pittsburgh marks for completion percentage (66.4) and passer rating (98.1) on his way to being named a Pro Bowl alternate.

But by the end of the season, Roethlisberger - who doesn't hesitate to go on the move when defensive pressure arrives - was noticeably less electric.

"I think fatigue had a lot to do with that," coach Bill Cowher said. "At the same time, it wasn't all about him. As a football team, we didn't play our best football in some of the big games that we had. Look at the last game."

Against the Patriots, the Steelers turned the ball over on three Roethlisberger interceptions and a fumble by running back Jerome Bettis, who had lost only one other fumble all season. And when Pittsburgh still had a slim chance in the fourth quarter, the Steelers' defense failed to stop New England on a 10-play, five-minute drive that all but killed the clock.

For the 6-foot-5, 241-pound quarterback, though, the lackluster performance in the AFC championship game was the disappointing denouement of a late-season swoon. After throwing 14 touchdowns and six interceptions (one per 38 passes) in his first 11 games, Roethlisberger slipped to six touchdowns and 10 interceptions (one per 12 passes) over his last five games.

"I played a whole college season. Then as soon as the college season was over, I trained for the draft. And as soon as that was over, I played a whole NFL season," Roethlisberger said. "So that's two straight seasons of nonstop football, and that took a toll on my body. My arm got a little sore. I didn't have as much zip on the ball. And mentally, things were getting crazy, like so many things were going on."

The quarterback said that with a full offseason of rest, he has recuperated and, more importantly, he's more familiar with the Steelers' ball-control offense.

"When he comes into the huddle, he's not looking down at the wrist band [to read plays], he's looking into our eyes, and that's part of the reason that you can tell he's more of a leader this year," Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings said.

Roethlisberger's coaches and teammates say the young quarterback, despite last season's exceptional run, is very much a work in progress. Not only is he still grappling with the offense, but his leadership style is also evolving.

"He's a guy who leads by example, although he's embracing that ... being a leader," said running back Verron Haynes, who is also the quarterback's roommate. "If he sees things going wrong in practice or going slow, he'll step up now and take the initiative and say, `Come on, guys, let's pick it up.' He's being a lot more vocal this year. And that comes from his knowledge of the game. He's in his playbook every night."

Roethlisberger's offseason, though an opportunity to recover from his first NFL season, was not entirely without controversy. The Findlay, Ohio, native has been riding motorcycles since he was a child, and says he favors Harleys and choppers and it's been noted he likes riding without a helmet - none of which escaped the notice of a concerned Cowher. Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow's motorcycle accident that ended his season only enflamed the issue.

Roethlisberger indicated he has no intention of giving up motorcycles while trying to avoid fueling the controversy.

"That's just the way it goes. ... I just want to ride," he said.

On the field, the Steelers are carefully watching how Roethlisberger balances his risk-taking there with his responsibilities running Pittsburgh's deliberate, ball-control offense, in which minimizing turnovers is critical.

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