December 12, 2004

Get on the Bus

PITTSBURGH -- Here's how ridiculously well things are going for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season: They're 11-0 when rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger starts a game, and more importantly -- on Sunday at least -- 1-0 when 255-pound running back Jerome Bettis throws a touchdown pass.

That's right. As if the Steelers didn't have enough weapons on offense already, they turned the man they call "The Bus'' into an Airbus on Sunday against the New York Jets, getting as much point production from his right arm as those big, powerful tree stumps that pass for legs.

Guess that's life for an NFL team on a team record-tying 11-game winning streak. When your wunderkind rookie quarterback looks more like a rookie quarterback than he ever has, you still find a way to win -- salting away a division title in the process -- thanks to a veteran like Bettis, who threw for one fourth-quarter touchdown pass and scored another by his more traditional method, a 12-yard run.

Not to demoralize the rest of the NFL's likely playoff qualifiers, but when you have to worry about Bettis beating you with both his running and his passing, well, you could be in for a long day on defense.

"When the play call came in, I looked at my wristband and I didn't know if [offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt] said the wrong number, because I saw what the play was,'' said Roethlisberger, of the key play in an otherwise less-than-memorable 17-6 Steelers defeat of the Jets at Heinz Field. "But I told Jerome, 'Here's a good chance to make a play.'

"He probably won't tell you this, but we ran it in practice [this week] and it fell about five yards short of the tight end [Jerame Tuman]. And he said it's because he's not a practice player. But I hand the ball off and I turn around and you see him make the play, and that's Jerome for you.''

That's Bettis all right, and that's also the Steelers this season, the team with the Midas Touch. If nothing's working, just hold on, they'll think of something. And when they do, it'll work like a charm. Especially when it's a 10-yard Bettis touchdown pass that had a little bit of a shot put's trajectory to it.

"My quarterback grip is not very good,'' deadpanned Bettis, whose execution of Pittsburgh's 438 Counter Pass broke a 3-3 tie and gave the Steelers a 10-3 lead with 12:56 left in the game. "I tried to get it around the laces, just so I could get it up and over that safety that was out there. I didn't want it to be stuck, because I had gloves on. I made the mistake in practice of throwing a line drive, so I learn from my mistakes.''

Mistakes? Bettis is now 3-of-6 with three touchdowns throwing the halfback option pass in his career, for a cool 63 yards. He tossed a 21-yarder to Hines Ward in 1999, and another to Tuman (his favorite target), for 32 yards, in 2001. If you're keeping score, that's two more career touchdown passes than Eli Manning has.

Whatever it takes to keep their magic carpet ride going, that's what the Steelers (12-1) are getting from Bettis and Co. this season. On a day when Roethlisberger looked more like Eli Manning than Bettis did, Pittsburgh still managed to gut out the victory against a talented Jets defense that probably deserved better.

In some ways, Pittsburgh's win had to be very reassuring to the Steeler faithful. If Pittsburgh is going to play deep into January, it's probably going to have to win a game or two like this: ugly, low-scoring affairs, where the yards are tough to come by, and the points even tougher. Where Roethlisberger starts slowly, and the defense and running game have to carry the entire load for more than a half or so.

The fallback formula worked well enough against New York, even when Roethlisberger started with a paltry 3-of-11 passing in the first half, for 24 yards, a pick and a microscopic 1.7 quarterback rating. But he steadied himself in the second half, completing six of his final eight passes for 120 yards, with another interception. His first-half performance was the kind the Steelers had been bracing themselves for, and still they survived his first two-interception game as a starter.

"The one thing I liked about Ben was when the game was there in the fourth quarter, he never really fretted,'' said Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, who wrapped up his eighth division title in his 13-season stint in Pittsburgh. "He hung in there and threw a great [46-yard] pass to Lee Mays on the third down [late in the fourth quarter], which I thought was the biggest play of the game.''

Not to be the contrarian, but the Bettis touchdown pass was bigger, because it reinforced the notion that the Steelers can do little wrong in 2004. Minnesota tried a very risky receiver-option pass with Randy Moss earlier Sunday afternoon, had it picked off with just more than two minutes remaining, and lost to Seattle in a game that could end up ruining the Vikings' season.

But when the Steelers tried virtually the same thing, Bettis somehow suckered 10 Jets defenders close to the line of scrimmage, and then beat them deep with his arm. It's always a beautiful thing when trickery works. Especially when the magician is as unlikely as Bettis.

"I wasn't surprised, because we've thrown the ball in situations like that before,'' said Bettis, who also rushed for a team-best 57 yards on 10 carries, spelling Duce Staley late, after the Steelers' starter went out with a tight hamstring. "I knew if the opportunity presented itself, they weren't afraid to call it. Coach did kind of give me the last bit of advice. He said, 'If it's not there, tuck it and run with it.'

"We knew they'd read our tendencies and expect the run in that particular situation. We were in [double tight ends], where we always run a counter-type play. So it was really a great call in playing against our tendencies.''

In securing their third division title in four years, the Steelers took a giant first step toward the Super Bowl, but other than the now-mandatory championship hats that every team passes out in the post-game, there was no real sign of celebration. That's because Cowher has focused like a laser on finishing the job, which means Pittsburgh continuing to protect its No. 1 seed in the AFC with the accompanying home field advantage in the playoffs.

The Steelers are going to the postseason, but there's still plenty to lose in the coming three weeks, as Pittsburgh travels to the Giants next week, before closing with Baltimore at home and at red-hot Buffalo. If a rematch with New England is in the offing in the AFC Championship, the Steelers are determined it be at Heinz Field, where they are 7-0 this season.

"This team understands it's a journey,'' Cowher said. "This is the first step. It was almost a battle of wills out there today, like who was going to flinch first. We just came up with a couple more big plays than they did, and that was the difference in the game.''

The difference on this day was Jerome Bettis. By air, and by land. Whatever it takes.

Pittsburgh 17, NY Jets 6

PITTSBURGH -- The New York Jets prepared for everything the Pittsburgh Steelers could throw at them. Everything except for Jerome Bettis' rarely seen passing arm.

Bettis flipped a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jerame Tuman three plays after surpassing the 13,000-yard rushing mark early in the fourth quarter, fooling what had been an impenetrable Jets defense and sending the Steelers to team record-tying 17-6 victory Sunday.

On a day Bettis and the Jets' Curtis Martin each broke the 13,000-yard barrier, Bettis also ran for his 12th touchdown of the season late in a decisive 14-point Pittsburgh fourth quarter.

``They made the plays, and that's what good teams do, what championship teams do,'' Jets coach Herman Edwards said. ``Their guys played better than us in the fourth quarter.''

Until Bettis' surprise throw, Pittsburgh's offense didn't look Super Bowl-ready as the Steelers (12-1) were held to 19 or fewer points for the fourth consecutive game. But they overcame a spotty game by rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to win a club record-tying 11th in a row. The 1975 Super Bowl champion Steelers also won 11 straight during a 12-2 season.

``Everybody keeps waiting for us to have a letdown, but each week someone steps up and makes big plays,'' wide receiver Hines Ward said. ``Really, Jerome won the game by himself.''

Roethlisberger was only 9 of 19 for 144 yards but kept his unprecedented rookie winning streak going, too, winning his 11th in a row in the NFL and 24th straight the last two seasons, counting his final 13 games at Miami of Ohio.

The Steelers' 15th victory in 17 games against the Jets (9-4) secured the AFC North championship that has been a foregone conclusion for weeks and kept them in the lead for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

The Jets' offense constantly broke down amid an uncharacteristic series of penalties (12 for 84 yards, all in the first half) and breakdowns. Chad Pennington was intercepted three times, only one fewer than he previously had all season.

``It's up to me to steer the ship in the right direction,'' said Pennington, 17-of-31 for 189 yards. ``Only a few plays separate the 11-1 teams from the 6-5 teams. A lot of teams have come close to beating the Steelers, but to their credit, they do a good job of making sure it doesn't happen.''

The Jets' defense had shut out three consecutive opponents in the second half and six this season until Bettis' throw, which broke a 3-all tie and kept New York from being 10-3 for the first time since 1986.

Bettis' third career touchdown pass in six attempts came on third-and-3. He rolled to his right after taking a handoff from Roethlisberger and casually tossed the ball to a wide-open Tuman, who also caught Bettis' last scoring pass in 2001. Bettis also had a TD throw in 1999.

``I got behind the safety and I couldn't see him (Bettis), I could just see the ball coming,'' Tuman said. ``When we practiced it Friday it didn't look good, the throw was a little low, but he got it up today. We had it set up perfectly -- we could hear their defense calling out (a run).''

Bettis ran for 57 yards to push his career total to 13,037, taking over after starter Duce Staley gained 51 yards. Martin had 24 carries for 72 yards to move past Bettis into fifth place with 13,046 yards in the first game in NFL history in which two backs each surpassed 13,000 yards.

Only four others have more than 13,000: Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson.

``We got together after the game and I told him congratulations and he told me congratulations,'' Martin said. ``You have to appreciate consistency, and that's what he's done.''

The Jets were the league's second-least penalized team until breaking down in the first half, when the only scoring came on Jeff Reed's 34-yard field goal for Pittsburgh following Troy Polamalu's interception. New York threatened late in the half by driving from its 4 to the Steelers 30, but Pennington was intercepted by James Farrior.

``Everything in the world happened to us in the first half, everything went wrong and we were still right there,'' Pennington said. ``We made too many mental mistakes and it begins with me.''


Steelers LB Clark Haggans missed most of the game with a groin injury. ... The Steelers are 4-0 against winning-record opponents (Patriots, Eagles, Jaguars, Jets). ... Roethlisberger has thrown for 150 yards or more only once in five games. ... The Jets have scored only 12 points against Pittsburgh the last two seasons, all on field goals. The Jets won 6-0 last season in a snowstorm in East Rutherford.

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