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ROBINSON ON FOOTBALL: Big Ben knew he would be good, and Steelers believed

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is accustomed to being slighted, beginning when his high school coach's lack of prescience limited him to one season at quarterback, and continuing when he was an often-overlooked star at ``the other'' Miami _ the one in Ohio, not in Florida.

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Ben Roethlisberger saw it coming, even when nobody else did.

Roethlisberger is accustomed to being slighted, beginning when his high school coach's lack of prescience limited him to one season at quarterback, and continuing when he was an often-overlooked star at ``the other'' Miami _ the one in Ohio, not in Florida.

So when quarterbacks Eli Manning and Philip Rivers were chosen before the Steelers drafted him No. 11 in April, Roethlisberger responded with words that bordered on anger and were wrapped with a promise: Play me, and I'll show you.

Everyone seems to think they (Manning and Rivers) had better systems, have played against better teams, have been born into a football family,'' he said.I feel that once I get on the field, my will to win is much greater than both of them. ... I think I bring a little more athleticism than both of them, but I guess we'll have to wait and see.''

That didn't take long. Halfway through a season in which the Steelers (7-1) themselves are the NFL's other big surprise story, he is, indeed, showing them.

Thanks to an ace quarterback and a Duce (Staley), an owner's reluctance to change and a coach's determination to return to the past, the Steelers are coming off easy victories over the otherwise unbeaten Eagles and Patriots. If they're not the Super Bowl favorite, they're on a short list with Philadelphia and New England.

We played the Patriots, who everybody said was the best team in football, and we beat them,'' linebacker Joey Porter said.Then we played the Eagles, who everyone said was the best team in football, and we beat them. I'll let you take it from there and draw your own conclusions.''

The Steelers haven't opened as fast or as furious since they won four Super Bowls in six seasons from 1975-80 yet, remarkably, are essentially the same team that was 2-6 a year ago.

The only major personnel changes were adding Roethlisberger and free agent running back Staley (101 yards per game) and promoting linebacker Clark Haggans and safety Troy Polamalu to starters. The biggest changes came off the field, with Ken Whisenhunt taking over the offense after Mike Mularkey left to coach the Bills, and Dick LeBeau returning as defensive coordinator, the same job he had 10 years ago.

Some impatient NFL owners might have fired Bill Cowher after last year's 6-10 season, which matched his worst in 12 years in Pittsburgh. Instead, the Steelers who haven't fired a coach in 35 years gave him a contract extension though 2007.

The move was viewed by some as stubbornness, a refusal by chairman Dan Rooney to admit Cowher's time might be up. Cowher has justified Rooney's confidence by making sure his team was confident, poised and focused since training camp began, a mind-set his players have carried throughout the season.

``That's what it comes down to: Do you believe your coach can win a championship for you?'' team president Art Rooney II said.

While the Steelers were reluctant to make a change, Cowher wasn't. Days after the 2003 season ended, Cowher talked of his determination to rebuild a running game that was the NFL's second-worst last season, lost amid a trickery-laden and pass-heavy system. Cowher also felt the defense was too soft and passive and had moved too far away from the blitzing and pressure he preferred.

Returning to what they traditionally do best, the Steelers lead the NFL in rushing, gaining only 202 fewer yards in eight games than they did all last season and plowing through the exceptional New England and Philadelphia defenses for a combined 473 yards.

I feel like personally, I go into the game knowing what we're trying to do,'' right guard Keydrick Vincent said.Last year I didn't feel that way, so hat's off to the coordinator. I know if he says he's going to run the ball, he's going to call the run. It's a big difference, knowing what you're going to do and then going out and doing it.''

On defense, the turnovers and sacks are way up under LeBeau, who has brought back the edgy aggressiveness and zone blitzes that characterized his Blitzburgh defense of the mid-1990s.

``We've got a fast defense and, when we turn it up right, we can cause some problems,'' LeBeau said.

But it is the 6-foot-5, 241-pound Roethlisberger who has energized Pittsburgh like no Steelers quarterback since Terry Bradshaw, providing the last missing piece to a team that has acted like it couldn't wait to win since training camp started.

Consider this: No other quarterback in NFL history ever took out undefeated teams in consecutive weeks the way Roethlisberger did the Patriots and Eagles _ and he did it in his first six weeks as a starter.

NFL Rookie of the Year? With a 69 percent completion rate, an average of only one interception every two starts and a team that can't wait to play behind him, Roethlisberger is making a case for the MVP award.

Some teammates wonder how the season would have turned out if Tommy Maddox hadn't injured an elbow in Week 2, allowing Roethlisberger to play. Maddox is well-liked and was the 2002 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, but he lacks the physical skills Roethlisberger possesses.

He's one part of what we have, and we have some good pieces around him,'' Cowher said, referring to Roethlisberger.But he holds up his end of the bargain pretty well.''

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