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Time To Rough Up The Rookie

By John Melillo
Jets Insider.com Staff Writer
January 14th, 2005
Even though Pro-Bowl DE John Abraham will be absent, the Jets defensive line must get to Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger to have a shot of winning. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
Even though Pro-Bowl DE John Abraham will be absent, the Jets defensive line must get to Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger to have a shot of winning. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
PITTSBURGH, PA - You’ve heard of rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger. He’s the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie sensation that has led the club to an extraordinary and record-breaking 13-0 record since becoming the team’s starter earlier this season. He has become the driving force for a 15-1 team that many have predicted will hoist the Lombardi Trophy in few weeks. Roethlisberger has become a NFL household name in a very short time and no quarterback since Dan Marino in 1984 has had such a prolific rookie season.

Are the Jets scared of this young phenom?

The answer is no.

The Jets defense in particular, guided by defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson who himself is a rookie, was not impressed. While the Steelers were victorious versus the Jets that Sunday in December, it’s hard to imagine the rookie nicknamed Big Ben awed anyone sporting the Green & White. That’s because the Jets’ defense battered the Steelers’ QB that day, resulting in the worst performance of Roethlisberger’s young career. As the Jets head to Pittsburgh for their AFC Divisional Playoff game this Saturday, confidence is at an all-time high as the Jets defense looks for a repeat performance against Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ aerial attack.

“We have all the confidence in the world,” CB Donnie Abraham said. “We are going into this game with the attitude that any team can get beat on any given day and we are just going to go in there and see what happens. We are going to play aggressive and continue to play our style of defense.”

The Jets’ style of defense limited Roethlisberger to just nine completions and 144 yards passing in their first meeting this season, resulting in a porous 33.6 QB rating. Additionally, the Steelers’ QB was sacked and intercepted twice by a stingy Jets’ defense that held the game in-check until a half-back option pass by RB Jerome Bettis flawed an otherwise dominating performance. Jets CB David Barrett acknowledged that the defensive unit had played a stout game, especially versus the pass.

“It was just doing our jobs and being in the right place and being where we were supposed to be,” Barrett said.

Unfortunately, the Steelers’ running game, which churned out 120 yards, combined with Bettis’ touchdown toss, was more than enough to defeat the Jets 17-6. The Steelers have traditionally employed a power run game, which features bruising backs Jerome “The Bus” Bettis and Duce Staley, as their primary offensive assault. While the Jets did hold Pittsburgh well below its 150-plus yard per game average that game, they realize a better performance is crucial to advancing to the AFC Championship game.

“We have to stop the run,” Ellis said. “Everybody knows Pittsburgh loves to run the ball. We have to stop the run and eliminate big plays and don’t go to sleep. They lull you to sleep with the run game and they hit you with big plays. You just have to stay consistent and play physical with them and match their intensity.”

A dominating running game has aided Roethlisberger as he becomes acclimated to the speed of the NFL during his rookie year. The Steelers simply require Big Ben to manage the game, not try to force any big plays and limit any turnovers.

“He doesn't have to throw three touchdown passes in his mind to win a game,” Coach Herm Edwards said. “He understands what he's supposed to do. The great thing they have, they can run the football. They play great defense. They play good special teams. When you get a quarterback that understands that, the first thing he's going to do, he's not going to turn the ball over.”

The one key factor that has changed since the Jets’ first meeting with Pittsburgh is that big-play WR Plaxico Burress will return to the Steelers’ starting lineup. Burress, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury, provides Roethlisberger with a deep threat and gives the Jets another weapon to be concerned with this Saturday.

“He's a vertical threat and a big-time player,” Edwards said of Burress. “He's a concern, especially in the red zone because he's a big target for him and he's a good football player.”

One of the defenders who could be assigned to cover the Steelers’ towering wide out is Abraham, who respects what Burress brings to their offense.

“I think what he brings to the game, anytime you have a good player with his ability who has been missing, when he gets back, he just brings his talent to the game and makes the team that much better,” Abraham said.

Nonetheless, the Steelers are expected to employ the same offensive attack that had earned them a first-round playoff bye this year, which points to a heavy workload for Staley and Bettis Saturday afternoon. The Jets will need to keep a watchful eye on a Steelers’ offense that occasionally likes to roll the dice, as evidenced by Bettis’ 10-yard scoring toss to TE Jumane Tuman that broke open a low-scoring slugfest.

“We feel very comfortable with Ben and giving him the responsibilities of check offs and we’ll continue to do that,” Steelers coach Bill Cowher said in a conference call earlier this week. “I think we’re just trying not to deviate from what we do well and obviously to this point, it’s been good.”

Cowher complimented the job of coordinator Donnie Henderson for fielding a unit that made life miserable for Roethlisberger during their first go-around.

“It’s going to be a big challenge again, and even the first time through when we played this football team. This is a good defense,” Cowher said. “They don’t give up a lot of big plays, they’re very well coordinated, and they’ve got very good team speed along with a very, very stout front seven.”

It is clear the Jets are unimpressed with the powerhouse that is the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers. Rightfully so, their first trip to Pittsburgh could have been a successful one had the Jets not self-imploded with 12 costly infractions in the first half of that game. Outsiders have painted the Jets as considerable underdogs for Saturday, but the players realize the game would be viewed on a more leveled playing field had they not self-imploded during their Week 15 loss.

“In a big game you have to look at your mistakes,” DT Dewayne Robertson said. “The team that makes the least mistakes is going to come out on top. That is basically how it is going to be all the way up to the Super Bowl.”

“You always want to come back and play them again and show that the first time was a fluke,” Barrett added.

And for the Jets to reach their ultimate objective and prove their 17-6 loss during the first meeting was an aberration, they will have maintain a team identity that has earned them 11 victories this year.

“We just have to play our game,” Barrett said. “And hopefully it will turn out the best for us.”

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