Cowher hasn't lost faith in Ben

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> It wasn't the thumb. Steelers coach Bill Cowher didn't hear the rumor until halftime, that his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was playing with a jammed thumb. Both parties denied a problem.

Maybe it the gloves. Roethlisberger used gloves Saturday for a sixth game this season and posted his second-worst set of statistics. Worse than Roethlisberger's 57.8 passer rating against the New York Jets was his 33.6 rating against, well, the Jets a month before. He also used gloves in that game.

Or maybe it was the inconsistent use of the gloves. Roethlisberger said after Saturday's game that because of the unseasonably warm weather he didn't use the gloves during practice and that it affected his performance.

Cowher scoffed at the link between Roethlisberger's poor passing day and his use of the gloves. But would Cowher force his quarterback to wear the gloves in the practices leading up to Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots?

"I'm not going to sit here and tell him what to do in regards to that," said Cowher. "Just throw the ball to the receiver, with or without the glove."

The normally unflappable rookie, Roethlisberger missed on several key passes against the Jets on Saturday. First, he underthew Plaxico Burress on a deep pass. Then, he overthrew Burress on a fade. Roethlisberger also skipped a pass to Hines Ward, misread a route by Antwaan Randle El and misread a route by Burress. Both of the latter mistakes cost Roethlisberger interceptions that nearly cost the Steelers the game.

In overtime, Roethlisberger completed 3 of 4 passes for 32 yards as the Steelers drove 72 yards for the game-winning field goal. For the game, he completed 17 of 30 passes for 181 yards with a touchdown and 2 interceptions.

Roethlisberger's passer rating of 57.8 was the lowest for a Steelers quarterback in a playoff game since Kordell Stewart's 45.2 passer rating in the 2001 AFC championship game.

In the 1997 playoffs, Stewart posted passer ratings of 44.3 and 41.6 in back-to-back games against the Patriots and Denver Broncos, respectively.

In 1996, Stewart failed to complete any of 10 passes, but his rating of 39.6 bettered the 35.1 posted by Mike Tomczak in the same game.

So, while Roethlisberger's game was certainly below average, it still ranks above some of the more recent passing stinkers in the playoffs.

But if it wasn't the thumb, or the gloves, what was it?

"I don't know. I guess everything gets magnified this time of year," said Cowher. "We threw the ball with 1:57 to go on the first play. When (Doug Brien) missed it and we got the ball back in the overtime, we threw the ball on the first play there. That should tell you we have confidence in the guy. That speaks volumes.

"I have all the confidence he'll do what it takes. It's a big football game but it's another game. He'll learn from the last one just like he'll learn from future games that he gets involved in."

Roethlisberger, however, hasn't improved throughout the course of the season. In his first seven starts, he completed 105 of 151 passes for 1,274 yards, 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. His passer rating in those seven games was 104.

In Roethlisberger's last seven starts, he completed 96 of 154 passes for 1,352 yards, 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions for a passer rating of 86.8.

After Saturday's game, Roethlisberger was one of the more eager participants at film review.

"I like his understanding, his evaluation of the game himself," Cowher said. "I think we wanted to look at the game and put it behind us, 'cause looking at that game we also recognize that's what New England's looking at as well."

New England, however, is the type of team that devours young, skittish quarterbacks. Roethlisberger became the first rookie quarterback to beat Belichick and the Patriots last Halloween. Bryon Leftwich, Joey Harrington, Michael Vick and Chris Weinke were 0-4 and combined for a 40.6 passer rating against the Patriots as rookies. Roethlisberger led the Steelers past the Patriots with a passer rating of 126.4, his second-best single-game rating of the season.

Will that knowledge of the Patriots help Roethlisberger on Sunday?

"Oh, he'll see something different. You can take that to the bank," Cowher said, adding: "We're not sitting here today if it wasn't for him doing some of the things he's done all year. Let's not lose sight of that. If you want to just look at his last game and analyze it, overanalyze it, (well) I'm not going to overanalyze it. Certainly there are some choices he made and I'm sure he'd like to have them back, for all of us. But it was what it was. We overcame it, we're moving on to the next week and we're not going to lose the approach that's got us to where we are today."

NOTES - Verron Haynes (knee), Kendrell Bell (groin), Clark Haggans (groin), Antwaan Randle El (toe) and Deshea Townsend (hand) comprise the Steelers' injury list and each is probable for Sunday's 6:30 p.m. game at Heinz Field. … Cowher said Bettis will "probably" start at halfback but that Duce Staley will see more playing time.

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