Does weak-armed QB scare Steelers?

<b>PITTSBURGH –</b> What we remember most about the '95 AFC championship game is the Hail Mary heave by Jim Harbaugh that skidded off the chest of Aaron Bailey and allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers a trip to the Super Bowl.

What most don't remember about the pass is that while Harbaugh heaved the ball with all his might, it spanned only 36 yards of Three Rivers Stadium turf.

In fact, it looked an awful lot like a Chad Pennington deep ball.

Oooh, cheap shot. At least Chris Hope thought so.

Hope is the Steelers' free safety. He has a history with New York Jets deep threat Santana Moss that goes back to their days at Florida State and Miami, respectively. So, Hope knows about Moss' speed, and that's one reason why he won't turn up his nose at Pennington's rather weak throwing arm.

"That would be a mistake," Hope said. "I respect everybody that plays the quarterback position. There are some who throw the ball harder and further, but like I said he gets it done."

Pennington didn't get it done last month at Heinz Field. He had one of the worst passing days of his career, although he did heave a 43-yard rainbow to Justin McCareins that set up the Jets' first field goal. Pennington also threw a 39-yard rainbow to Moss that was called back because of a delay of game penalty.

In spite of those few successes, Pennington finished the game with a dismal passer rating of 33.6. He had an excuse, however, in that he'd only returned the previous week from a 3-game layoff due to a rotator-cuff problem in his throwing arm. Against the Steelers, Pennington's arm appeared to be injured.

"I wouldn't say it was hurting in that game," Pennington said this week. "I think the Steelers did a great job of putting me in some positions where I forced the ball and they did a great job of taking advantage of those forces and turning them into opportunities and turnovers."

That's what Troy Polamalu did. The sign of arm strength in the NFL isn't necessarily the deep ball, but the down-and-outs. Pennington attempted to throw to the sideline early against the Steelers and Polamalu dropped back to pick it off. Linebacker James Farrior also dropped deep to intercept Pennington. Hope completed the hat trick by intercepting Pennington's last pass of the game.

"They know how to play defense," said Pennington, who missed practice Wednesday with a stomach virus. "Their scheme is different from other really good defenses, but within their scheme they understand how to play defense. The first sign of a great defense is they can stop the run. The Steelers are the best at that. They do a great job stopping the run. Their safeties are really aggressive. They are great tacklers. They can fill the run support lanes and make tackles."

They can also intercept passes, which brings us back to Pennington's rather weak arm. It should allow the Steelers' safeties to play the run even more aggressively.

"Oh, no," said Polamalu. "I definitely don't buy into that. He's a great competitor and adrenaline will carry him through I'm sure. He's a great quarterback."

Farrior agreed – to a point. "He's an accurate thrower," Farrior said. "I don't think his arm is that strong. I think the injury's bothering him a little bit. That hurts his velocity on the ball. But he's definitely an accurate thrower. We just anticipated, watched a lot of tape and got good pressure. I think that was the key."

Pennington has put up good, even great, statistics since he bottomed out against the Steelers. He did throw two interceptions in the Jets' loss to the New England Patriots, but otherwise his four-game post-Steelers passer rating is 99.1.

In last week's win over the San Diego Chargers, Pennington completed 23 of 33 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns without being intercepted. He was asked if he re-proved himself to critics.

"It was redemption for me personally to play up to my expectations," Pennington said. "As far as proving anything to anyone, I quit doing that a while ago because there are always going to be critics and doubters. What you have to do as an athlete is trust your God-given ability and trust yourself and don't second-guess yourself. When you start doing that, that's when you play hesitant and you look like you don't have the arm strength.

"It's amazing. When you win, people don't talk about stuff like that. But when you lose, they find things to talk about."

And when you heave a rainbow 47 yards for a touchdown, as Pennington did to Santana Moss last week, opposing free safeties have to pay attention.

"That one had some speed to it," Hope told a skeptical reporter.

"Look," Hope said, "He's a touch passer. He's not one of those rocket-armed guys, but he's a starter in the NFL. You have to respect him."


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