By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006
DETROIT -- Among the many story lines to Super Bowl XL is the smash-mouth Pittsburgh Steelers and their frenetic blitzing against the softer, more cerebral Seattle Seahawks and their West Coast passing game.
There are plenty other intriguing angles: Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, a Detroit native, playing what could be his final game in his home town; Bill Cowher, the longest-tenured head coach in the league, trying to win his first Super Bowl after 14 years in Pittsburgh; and Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren attempting to become the first to win Super Bowls with different teams.
But the main focus today probably should start at quarterback, where the play of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, 23, and his 30-year-old counterpart, Matt Hasselbeck, likely will go a long way toward determining the outcome. With quarterbacks winning the Super Bowl MVP 19 times, don't be surprised if No. 20 comes from this game.
Though conventional wisdom indicates the Steelers (14-5) and Seahawks (15-3) got this far because of their running games, both teams have become far more balanced in the playoffs.
The Steelers have said they will try to turn Seattle one-dimensional by focusing on shutting down Shaun Alexander, the league MVP with 1,880 rushing yards and a record 28 touchdowns. The Seahawks are hoping to do the same to Bettis and leading rusher Willie Parker, meaning the game could hinge on both quarterbacks' ability to throw under heavy pressure.
Roethlisberger has the chance to become the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl (Tom Brady was 24 when he led the New England Patriots to the title after the 2001 season). Dan Marino, who grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs, had been the youngest to start a Super Bowl when he lost to the San Francisco 49ers in 1985.
Marino, who never got back to the Super Bowl, has befriended Roethlisberger, and the two have spoken several times since the Steelers, the sixth seed in the AFC, upset the Denver Broncos two weeks ago at Invesco Field to get a chance to win a fifth Super Bowl.
"We talked a couple of times this week," Roethlisberger said. "He called me and said, 'Listen, enjoy it and have fun there because you never know if you'll come back.' He said he always thought he was going to make it back, and he never got to play in it again. I asked him things like what he did and how he enjoyed the experience because of all the attention and the media was on him. I asked him how to deal with it. He just told me to stay focused and that I'd get butterflies and get nervous, and there would be a lot of anxious feelings. He said to make sure to keep that under control and not let it get the best of me."
Roethlisberger has played this season as if he were a 10-year veteran. As a rookie, the 11th overall choice in the 2004 draft made a splash when he came off the bench early that season because of an injury to veteran starter Tommy Maddox and finished 14-0 as a regular season starter. The playoffs exposed his inexperience, especially in an AFC title game loss to New England when he threw three interceptions to give him five for the postseason.
The Steelers, 15-1 a year ago, were 7-5 entering the playoff stretch drive this year, mostly because Roethlisberger missed three games with a knee injury, then hurt his right thumb in a Monday night loss to the Colts. He got healthy in a hurry and helped lead his team to seven straight victories, including three on the road in the playoffs against the three highest seeds in the conference.
Roethlisberger's regular season numbers weren't spectacular. He was 21st in the league in passing yards (2,385) and tied for 14th in touchdown passes (17), with nine interceptions. But when it came time to make a critical throw for a first down or keep a drive alive by running, Roethlisberger had few peers, and his 98.6 passer rating ranked third in the league.
In playoff victories over Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver, the Steelers used a start-fast blueprint that allowed them to take early leads, mostly by throwing. In the regular season, Pittsburgh ran on 57 percent of its offensive plays; in the first half of the three postseason wins, they threw 56 percent of the time and outscored the opposition 52-23. They would build a lead, then go back to the run in the second half to protect it and use clock.
Against a Seattle team that finished 25th in pass defense (222.4 yards a game), Roethlisberger can be expected to throw early and often. In the playoffs, he has a 124.8 passer rating, completing 68 percent of his attempts for seven touchdowns and one interception.
"At the end of the season, everyone said if we had to throw and someone stops the run, we won't be able to win because we can't throw the ball," Roethlisberger said this week. "The last couple of games, we've won by throwing. When you put it on our shoulders, we've proven we're a balanced offense and we can throw."
Unlike the Steelers, who rely on many blitz packages, the Seahawks get most of their pressure on quarterbacks from their front four. Seattle led the league with 50 sacks, half credited to its starting defensive linemen. The Steelers had 47 sacks, and their two leaders were outside linebackers Joey Porter (10 1/2 ) and Clark Haggans (nine).
Roethlisberger has put a different sort of pressure on himself this year. Standing on the sideline last year in the final minutes of that title game loss to the Patriots, he promised Bettis if the popular running back returned, he'd get him back to the Super Bowl for one last chance to earn his first ring.
"I'm just glad I could keep it," he said. "That was maybe just something to get him to come back. Luckily, I was able to keep the promise."
It has taken Hasselbeck a bit longer to fulfill the promise expected of him when the Seahawks obtained him in a 2001 trade with the Green Bay Packers. He had begun his career as a rookie in 1998 under then-Packers coach Mike Holmgren before rejoining Holmgren in Seattle, where he initially struggled and occasionally battled with his head coach on how to play the position.
This season, all those lessons learned under a coach who had helped develop Joe Montana, Steve Young and Brett Favre paid off. The Seahawks ran off 11 straight victories before losing a meaningless season-ending game to the Packers when they rested most of their starters. Hasselbeck passed for 3,459 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions during the regular season, leading the NFC with a 98.2 rating. He's been better in the playoffs with a 109.6 mark, including three touchdowns and no interceptions.
"It's taken a little while," Holmgren said. "But right now, he and I are in a very, very good place. Matt has been consistent in his play for the last three years. He's worked very hard to make sure he's the leader of the football team. No one works harder, and he has great respect from his teammates. It's all kind of come together this season."
Hasselbeck likely will leave the pocket more often than Roethlisberger, especially if the Steelers continue their blitzing tactics. He's run a dozen times in two playoff games, averaging four yards a carry, but frequently moves around only for extra time to throw. It also helps that his veteran offensive line, with four of the five starters playing together for five years, has allowed him to be sacked 16 times and only twice in the postseason.
Hasselbeck, like Roethlisberger, has seemed to revel in all the attention he has received this week and does not mind that the Seahawks, despite being the top seed in the NFC, are four-point underdogs.
"The truth is the truth," he said. "People expect Pittsburgh to win this game. Oh well. We're not getting caught up in it. They're the hottest team in football right now. But I appreciate this a great deal. Holding that NFC championship trophy up last week in front of our crowd, a crowd that once wasn't too fond of me, it just made it a little more special. I'm really proud that it worked out here."