PITTSBURGH - It was one of those moments that might shake a young quarterback.
Early in Sunday's game against Cleveland, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger zipped a pass in the direction of Antwaan Randle El. It was a good pass, right on the hands, but Randle El bobbled it and saw the ball flip away from him upon being hit by Browns linebacker Kevin Bentley.
Cleveland safety Chris Crocker was there to pluck it out of the air, and he had nothing but 20 yards of green grass to the end zone for a touchdown that tied the score at 7-7 and breathed a little life into a Browns team that has been touchdown-challenged, to be polite.
Regardless of the circumstances, the box score, or whatever it is called in football, said that Roethlisberger threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
It is a play that is disconcerting even for a veteran, because points are precious in any NFL game.
"It will probably never happen again because Antwaan has such great hands," Roethlisberger said. "Plus, you can't dwell on something like that so early in a game. We got to the sideline and Antwaan looked at me. I don't know if he thought I was going to be mad or what. I just laughed."
It is one reason why the Steelers love their new quarterback.
It is one reason they don't lose confidence, because they know he won't.
It is one reason why there now appears to be no guarantee that starter Tommy Maddox will be handed the job when he returns from the injured list.
Make no mistake. The Steelers' veterans, especially those along the offensive line and in the receiving corps, were not particularly enthralled with a rookie quarterback being pressed into duty so early in the season.
Three wins and no losses later, opinions seem to have changed.
"Ben gives us an opportunity to make plays," said receiver Plaxico Burress, who was on the receiving end of six Roeth-
lisberger passes worth 136 yards Sunday. "Normally, plays go four or five seconds long, but with Ben back there he can break tackles and scramble and can extend plays. That creates opportunities for us."
Hines Ward virtually echoed
Burress' comments. Pittsburgh's linemen have also gotten on board with their young quarterback.
"We know Ben's going to keep plays alive, so we just have to hang onto our blocks longer so he can keep it alive and let the receivers make big plays," said tackle Marvel Smith.
They are all talking about the occasions when Roethlisberger is pressured out of the pocket. He rolls and rolls, never panics, holds the ball, exercises patience, and waits for receivers to break open. It happened several times on Sunday, and the plays went for big gains, either setting up or producing touchdowns.
Big Ben showed far more poise in those situations than the average newbie quarterback cutting his teeth in the NFL.
Heck, he showed far more poise than Cleveland's beleaguered Jeff Garcia, the king of the throw-away.
"We have a quarterback who can get out of [the pocket], who's mobile, and sees the field well," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "His confidence, especially in those situations, is impressive. He's been confident since Day One. I like his demeanor."
Although they had no intention of Roethlisberger playing this soon, and certainly could not have expected the northwest Ohioan to play this well, the Steelers surely knew they'd found a steal on draft day last spring.
I remember being amused by the machinations of the Chargers drafting Eli Manning against his wishes, then trading him to the Giants in exchange for the pick with which they could draft David Rivers of North Carolina State.
Most of the scouts I talked to thought Roethlisberger had a bigger upside than either of them. He's 6-5 and weighs 240 pounds, meaning he can take a beating, yet has some sneaky quickness that allows him to elude the rush. His arm has never been questioned, to my knowledge, by anyone.
But his most impressive traits at Findlay High, where he quarterbacked the varsity for just one season, and then Miami University, where he rewrote the record book, were his cool and calm, his nerve and poise. Those qualities can't be taught, can't be coached, and can't be overstated in the NFL.
Roethlisberger, who left college a year early, said he often realizes he could still be a senior at Miami, getting ready for another game against another overmatched defense.
"I think this is amazing," he said.
His teammates are beginning to agree.
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