Sat, Sep 10, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Fans wonder if Pittsburgh's QB will suffer slump

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

After a successful rookie season, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is determined not to regress.

How he handles his second year in the NFL will greatly determine the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have Super Bowl aspirations. Undefeated in his first 14 starts at quarterback, Roethlisberger had a magical season until the New England Patriots knocked off the Steelers in the American Football Conference championship game and harassed him into three interceptions.

Which Roethlisberger will we see more of: the one who sparkled during the regular season or the one who struggled during the playoffs? He sounds eager to face his latest challenge.

"Everybody asks about the sophomore slump," Roethlisberger said Wednesday during a conference call. "I don't believe in that. I'm coming out to do the best I can this year and just trying to improve. The big thing you have to remember is, I can be a better quarterback, or we can be a better team, and not have as good of a record."

Pittsburgh made the league's biggest one-year improvement, to 15-1 from 6-10. The defense was ranked No. 1 overall, Pittsburgh ran the ball a league-high 618 times and the ball-control offense allowed Roethlisberger to throw when he wanted to instead of when he had to.

But that offensive formula will probably change, starting with Sunday's home opener against Tennessee. Running back Jerome Bettis (sore calf) will not play. Running back Duce Staley, recovering from knee surgery, is questionable. And the Steelers must fill the void left by wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who signed with the Giants as a free agent.

Roethlisberger never attempted more than 28 passes during a regular-season game, but look for the Steelers to open up a little more. That means more opportunities for Roethlisberger, who was drafted No. 11 and is still driven to prove he is better than the two quarterbacks picked ahead of him, Eli Manning of the Giants at No. 1 and Philip Rivers of San Diego at No. 4.

"I was blessed to go to a great team in the Steelers and have great guys around me," Roethlisberger said. "I felt that I was the best quarterback, but I was going to have to prove it. I didn't go as high as I wanted to, but looking back on it, I'm blessed."

Pittsburgh's goal is to play its best when it matters most. The Steelers were the best team in football at midseason last year when they whipped New England (34-20) and Philadelphia (27-3) in back-to-back weeks. But the Steelers peaked too soon, and the Patriots won another Super Bowl.

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