Rookie Quarterback To Start On Opening Day

<b>PITTSBURGH -- </b> The way Tunch Ilkin remembers it, John Elway walked off the Three Rivers Stadium playing field with his helmet askew and his jersey pulled down over his shoulder pads. <br><br> "He was battered," said Ilkin, the former Pittsburgh Steelers tackle who was injured and in the stands that day. "I remember thinking, ‘Welcome to the league, rook.'"

Twenty years later, Kyle Boller of the Baltimore Ravens becomes the next rookie quarterback to start on opening day against the Steelers.

The 19th pick of this year's draft would take Elway's result in a snap, but probably not the statistics. Elway completed only one of eight passes that day for 14 yards. He was intercepted once and had to be relieved by Steve DeBerg. The two quarterbacks were sacked seven times but combined for a 14-10 win over the Steelers.

"They weren't moving the ball at all," recalled running backs coach Dick Hoak. "They may have won, but Elway didn't play well. He had trouble with the different blitzes and different reads."

That's the reason rookie quarterbacks don't generally start opening games, or at least not against the Steelers. Sunday's start by Boller will be the first by a rookie quarterback since Elway in 1983, but the Ravens are hoping Boller picks up where he left off in the preseason with his 92.5 passer rating.

"Yeah, but preseason to regular season is a totally different thing," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward. "I mean, he made some good reads in the preseason, but now we're opening up the whole playbook. I don't think he's seen a defense like ours, especially with the blitz-zone we have. You don't know where our guys are coming from."

The Steelers' defense is complex and athletic linebackers and defensive backs have given the coaching staff plenty of ammunition in its blitz package over the years. But surprisingly, rookie quarterbacks have beaten the Steelers in five of 13 starts during the Bill Cowher era. And at Pittsburgh, opposing rookie quarterbacks have pulled out two wins in six tries.

Last year, David Carr passed for only 33 yards but led the expansion Houston Texans to a 24-6 win. Mike McMahon couldn't help the Detroit Lions in 2001, but Tim Couch led the expansion Cleveland Browns to a 16-15 win in 1999 to give rookie quarterbacks two wins in their last three visits.

Other rookies who've beaten the Steelers during the Cowher era were Jonathan Quinn of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1998, Charlie Batch of the Lions in the controversial coin-toss Thanksgiving Day game in 1998, and Rick Mirer of the Seattle Seahawks in 1993.

Several others, however, were abysmal against the Steelers' defense. David Klingler of the Cincinnati Bengals was sacked 10 times in a 21-9 loss in 1992; Drew Bledsoe threw five interceptions in a 17-14 loss in 1993; Eric Zeier managed only 67 yards passing in a 20-3 loss in 1995; Tony Banks of the St. Louis Rams was sacked six times in a 42-6 loss in 1995; Jake Plummer of the Arizona Cardinals was sacked 10 times in a 26-20 overtime loss in 1997; and CFL-transfer Jeff Garcia of the San Francisco 49ers passed for only 39 yards in a 27-6 loss in 1999.

The only other rookie quarterback to start against the Cowher-led Steelers was Akili Smith, who completed 50 percent of his passes for 207 yards for the Cincinnati Bengals in a 17-3 loss in 1999. The significant stat for Smith, though, was the date. The Oct. 17 start was the earliest any rookie quarterback has made against Cowher's Steelers. The rest started their games from Nov. 3 on out, giving them at least half a season to grasp the pro game.

The cumulative passer rating for the rookies in those games is 60.5, but 46.2 in the six games in Pittsburgh.

Boller, of course, will have to do better, and some feel he will. Here's what one NFL scout had to say:

"In their first two preseason games, what you saw was a guy with all the tools who wasn't ready mentally. He'd stare guys down and he'd take off and run if they didn't come open. But in the last game against the Giants, he was more poised in the pocket and looked for secondary receivers. I think he progressed enough to show he could handle it. He's developing, but is he developing enough to win? It's too hard to say, considering the pressure he'll be under."

According to the scout, the "more athletic, stronger-armed quarterback" is the only significant change in the Ravens over the last few years. The Steelers hope that change weakens the Ravens at this point.

"They're going to run. They've got Jamal Lewis. He's healthy now. He's an explosive runner," said Ward. "They're going to have to take the pressure off the quarterback. If they put it all on his shoulders and guys are coming from everywhere, it'll be a long day for him. But if they mix it up, get the running game going and keep the game plan simple for him, then we'll see."

Jim Wexell

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