Ravens try to corral Steelers' escape artist

OWINGS MILLS -- The chase is on, and Ben Roethlisberger keeps gazing downfield as he searches for wide receivers breaking off their patterns. Dashing outside the pocket to escape the Cincinnati Bengals' pursuit, Roethlisberger spins, feints and stiff-arms defenders to create a pathway to the sight line he wanted.

The result is a crisp spiral fired into the waiting hands of Santonio Holmes.

It was yet another improvisational display in a 24-13 victory Sunday for the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback, whose escape artistry and improved decision-making have propelled him forward after last year's disastrous campaign.

"It's just when things break down you've got to have that emergency exit door and you try to find it when you need to and just be patient, try not to do too much and make plays," Roethlisberger said Wednesday in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "A lot of the credit when you do that goes to the offensive line because they've got to hold their blocks longer, and I go downfield. So, it's a kind of a combination of everybody when I have to do that."

As the Ravens (4-3) prepare to play the Steelers (5-2) Monday night at Heinz Field, containing a rejuvenated, mobile Roethlisberger is at the top of their priority list.

Roethlisberger has matured into a sounder overall quarterback whose athleticism belies his bulky 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame. His capabilities outside of the pocket, including many designed rollouts and bootlegs, have allowed him to complete several third-down throws.

One of those occurred Sunday when a player was yanking on Roethlisberger's arm and he broke the tackle attempt. Another time, he outran the defense to the perimeter on third down for a nine-yard gain and a first down.

"It's a weird comparison, but he's kind of like Michael Vick when he's on the move," Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "He's not as fast and elusive, but he does have some speed and he does have that downfield vision where he's real good on the run. That's what's scary about him.

"As a big guy, he can absorb more contact than a smaller guy. He's a tough guy. The play is never over. He's always doing something to make something happen. He's a fun quarterback to play against because you have to stay alert."

Under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson, Roethlisberger has rebounded from a crisis-plagued 2006 season.

One year removed from a scary motorcycle accident, an emergency appendectomy and two concussions, Roethlisberger has calmly completed 64.6 percent of his throws for 15 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 102.2 passer rating that ranks fourth in the NFL.

"He's done it just about every week," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Roethlisberger a few minutes after his quarterback hung up the phone. "He's got unique talents in that way.

Aside from pure escape ability, he makes very good decisions, and I think that's what makes it an attractive component to what we do."

Roethlisberger's decisions on and off the field were questionable last season when he slumped to a league-high 23 interceptions with just 18 touchdowns as he fumbled a career-high five times.

Now, Roethlisberger has revived his career by improvising to distribute the football nearly equally between Holmes (26 catches, 426 yards and four touchdowns), tight end Heath Miller (24 catches, 333 yards and four touchdowns) and veteran wide receiver Hines Ward (24 catches, 274 yards and three touchdowns).

Roethlisberger ranks third in the league in touchdown percentage, and 16th in interception percentage.

"Obviously being healthy and feeling good, it's good to back out on the football field and feel like you're having fun again," said Roethlisberger, who has thrown a touchdown pass in a dozen consecutive games and has two more touchdown passes this year than Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

What has aided the Steelers' cause in particular, though, is Roethlisberger being able to avoid the pass rush, taking just 16 sacks, and sustaining drives by throwing on the run or keeping it himself while directing an offense that's averaging 361.1 yards per contest to rank fourth in total offense.

"It puts a lot of pressure on defenses," Ward told Pittsburgh reporters this week. "You think you have him blitzed and you have him, and the next thing you know he escapes containment and makes huge plays on third downs."

Plus, Roethlisberger seems to have put Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott's concussive hit behind him even though he remains aware that the Ravens' second-ranked defense will try to duplicate last year's blitzkrieg.

"You have to forget about it," Roethlisberger said. "You have to have short-term memory loss because every game you get hit. You have to be able to put things behind you and move on. Every guy on that defense is a threat, every guy is someone that you need to keep your eye on.

"You can't say that about any defense in the NFL. So, I'm trying to hurry up and get off the phone so I can go watch some more film because the things that they do, it's pretty intense and pretty crazy."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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