Roethlisberger, becoming more comfortable and more productive with each start, confused Cleveland with his running and creativity and the Steelers won their third in a row behind the rookie quarterback, beating the Browns 34-23 Sunday.
Browns safety Earl Little said beforehand that Roethlisberger wasn’t Cleveland’s biggest worry because the Steelers are asking him only to manage their offense and keep from making mistakes. Turns out the Browns might have underestimated him just a little.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Roethlisberger was 16-for-21 for 231 yards, a touchdown pass and a TD run. And to think he might not be playing if starter Tommy Maddox hadn’t hurt his right elbow Sept. 19 against Baltimore.
“Every week is getting better,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s all just starting to come together.”
Just as it is for the Steelers, who are 4-1 for only the third time in 22 seasons after going 6-10 last season. Duce Staley complemented Roethlisberger by scoring on a 25-yard run while gaining 117 yards, his third consecutive 100-yard game.
The Browns (2-3) missed a chance to move over .500 after multiple games for the first time since late in the 2002 season and dropped two games behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North.
Some NFL scouts felt Roethlisberger needed the most polishing of the three quarterbacks chosen early in the April draft. Yet while the Giants’ more-publicized Eli Manning and the Chargers’ Philip Rivers are sitting, Roethlisberger is only the sixth rookie quarterback to win his first three starts since the NFL merger in 1970. Steelers rookie Mike Kruczek was 6-0 in 1976.
“He made a couple of plays that, yeah, you definitely look at and say, `Boy, this guy can play,”’ Steelers center Jeff Hartings said. “The way he throws on the run, being able to stop and sling it 40-50 yards, that’s just natural ability. I think Pittsburgh’s going to be happy to have him.”
With the score tied at 7, Roethlisberger scrambled to elude Ebenezer Ekuban, then was flattened by Orpheus Roye’s hit, yet still found Plaxico Burress for 51 yards to the Cleveland 9. A play later, Roethlisberger, apparently not rattled by the hit, powered up the middle on a 6-yard TD run—matching the number of scoring runs the less-mobile Maddox has in 33 games with Pittsburgh.
“He made some throws,” Roye said. “He played like a veteran. You couldn’t tell he was a rookie.”
The threat Roethlisberger created by his running also led to his 37-yard scoring pass to Burress that made it 24-10 midway through the third. Roethlisberger rolled out of the pocket, momentarily freezing the defense and allowing Burress to slip 5 yards behind cornerback Anthony Henry for an unguarded touchdown. Burress made six catches for 136 yards.
“A lot of those plays aren’t called, but the linemen are doing a great job of blocking and the wide receivers are getting open,” Roethlisberger said. “For me it’s easy, all I’ve got to do is run and throw the football.”
While Roethlisberger stayed poised, Browns free agent quarterback Jeff Garcia still looked uncomfortable out of the 49ers’ West Coast offense despite dodging a heavy pass rush to throw for 210 yards. Coach Butch Davis, 1-7 against the Steelers, made no move to replace him with Kelly Holcomb, who passed for 663 yards in his two career starts against Pittsburgh.
After Chris Crocker’s 20-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter, Cleveland’s only scoring consisted only of Phil Dawson’s three field goals until Andre Davis’ 7-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Dawson is 11-of-11 this season and has made 21 in a row since Oct. 19, 2003, to prop up an offense that hasn’t scored a first-half touchdown this season.
“If you settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, you never create any heat on them,” Garcia said.
Steelers rookie Richard Colclough’s 59-yard return of the opening kickoff set up Staley’s touchdown just 1:20 into the game. … Pittsburgh is 34-13 in October under coach Bill Cowher. … Hines Ward caught six passes for 61 yards to move past Lynn Swann into third place in Steelers history with 5,506 yards receiving. … The Steelers, next-to-last in rushing last season, have 491 yards rushing in their last three games. … Burress’ touchdown catch was only the second against the Browns’ secondary this season.