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Behind rookie QB who wasn't supposed to play, Steelers among NFL surprises

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The day he was drafted, Ben Roethlisberger was compared to Terry Bradshaw, the last Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback chosen as early in the first round as Roethlisberger was.

The day Roethlisberger signed his first NFL contract, agent Leigh Steinberg compared him to John Elway and Troy Aikman, saying the former Miami of Ohio star owned the leadership skills, strong arm and intangibles only a few quarterbacks ever possess.

Barely a week ago, Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells compared him to Dan Marino, saying no rookie quarterback has so impressed him since Marino broke in with the Miami Dolphins in 1983.

Now, as the Steelers take the weekend off before meeting what arguably are the NFL's two best teams, the Patriots and Eagles, on successive weeks, they and the rest of the league seem to be running out of comparisons for Roethlisberger.

``The kid is riding an all-time high,'' wide receiver Hines Ward said.

Not all time, but close.

Roethlisberger is 4-0 as a starter since replacing the injured Tommy Maddox during a 30-13 loss at Baltimore on Sept. 19; the only better start by an NFL rookie QB since the 1970 merger was by Pittsburgh's Mike Kruczek (6-0) in 1976. The difference is nobody dared to think Bradshaw could be replaced long-term by Kruczek, a caretaker quarterback who didn't throw a single touchdown pass while mostly handing off to twin 1,000-yard rushers Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier.

Today, even Bradshaw favorably compares Roethlisberger to himself, saying the rookie looks like he could be Pittsburgh's quarterback for the next 15 years. It's not just because Roethlisberger has done nothing but win, but also how he's gone about it, displaying the poise, calmness and polish rarely seen in a rookie.

It's only been four games,'' Roethlisberger said.It's a little too early to be putting statements on it like that.''

But what a four-game stretch it's been, with comeback wins over the Bengals and Cowboys _ the Steelers' first win in Dallas since 1982. While fellow rookie quarterbacks Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers have yet to play much, Roethlisberger is fourth in passer rating, trailing only the far more experienced Daunte Culpepper, Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb. His 69 percent completion rate would be exceptional for any quarterback, much less one who was supposed to spend all or most of this season on the bench.

Roethlisberger's effect on a team coming off a 6-10 season has been immediate and dramatic. It can easily be argued that no Steelers rookie since linebacker Jack Lambert in 1974 has made such a difference so quickly.

Certainly, the Steelers have benefited from a favorable schedule, losing to the only winning-record team they've played, Baltimore. Their schedule toughens during the final 10 weeks, with all three remaining unbeatens to play the Patriots (5-0), Eagles (5-0) and Jets (5-0) plus the Giants (4-1), Jaguars (4-2), Ravens (3-2) and division rivals Cleveland (3-3) and Cincinnati (1-4) on the road. They'll also be without injured nose tackle Casey Hampton (knee) for the rest of the season and cornerback Chad Scott (knee) for much of it.

Still, the confidence Roethlisberger has quickly built among his teammates is obvious. A year after they lost five times by a touchdown or less, the Steelers have rallied to win three times in the fourth quarter.

Momentum is such a big thing,'' coach Bill Cowher said.It can create confidence. We are a very confident football team. Maybe we are more confident than we are good. Right now, these guys believe in each other and they believe they will find a way to win.''

The Steelers' turnaround they will equal last season's victory total with their next win isn't totally traceable to Roethlisberger. The running game, the NFL's second-worst last season, is again among the upper quarter of the league after adding running back Duce Staley, who already has three 100-yard games.

The defense also has been much better under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who has brought back the pressure and blitzing the Steelers used so successfully in the mid-1990s. One of those blitzes led to Dallas quarterback Vinny Testaverde's fumble that was turned into the winning touchdown during the Steelers' 24-20 victory Sunday. It was Pittsburgh's 15th forced turnover, only 10 fewer than in 16 games last season.

But it's Roethlisberger who has created the biggest stir in a city that never needs much of an excuse to get excited about the Steelers. Want to guess how many Roethlisberger No. 7 jerseys will be unwrapped under western Pennsylvania Christmas trees in two months?

``I can't say enough about him,'' Cowher said.

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