Red-hot Roethlisberger in rarified air

Ben Roethlisberger is performing at a level only seen by the true greats of the game. Yet, he's off many radar screens.

PITTSBURGH – From the middle of a mob of reporters, someone asked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger why his pump fake has been so effective this year.

"I have no idea," said Roethlisberger.

It was a surprisingly terse answer from a guy who's become more thoughtful with the media as he's come of age as a team leader.

As the mob dissipated, the reporter told Roethlisberger that he's from ESPN.

"I know you are," Roethlisberger said as he walked away. "And tell Trent Dilfer to get his stuff together."

Dilfer, of course, is an ESPN analyst who this week said that Kyle Orton – along with both Mannings, Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers – has been a better quarterback this season than Roethlisberger, who leads the NFL in passing yards and yards per attempt, is second in completions and completion percentage, and is fourth in passer rating.

Dilfer explained that his rankings are based on "Do you win football games?"

Roethlisberger has four wins in six games – and two rings in five seasons.

The start to this season has been Roethlisberger's best.

With a completion percentage over 70 (72.5) and a yards-per-attempt average over 9.0 (9.12), Roethlisberger is doing what only three other quarterbacks have ever done over the course of a complete season – seasons that were high points of each Hall of Famer's career.

* In 1945, Sammy Baugh completed 70.3 percent of his passes and averaged 9.2 yards per attempt, but he and the Washington Redskins lost the NFL Championship game, 15-14, on the frozen field of the Cleveland Rams. It didn't help that an early Baugh pass hit his goal post for a safety.

* The feat wasn't accomplished again until 1989, when Roethlisberger's idol, Joe Montana, completed 70.2 percent of his passes and averaged 9.1 yards per attempt. He won a ring and both the league and Super Bowl MVP awards that year.

* In 1994, Steve Young completed 70.3 percent of his passes and averaged 9.2 yards per attempt. He also won a ring and the league and Super Bowl MVP awards.

Roethlisberger's numbers after six games last season were 63 percent completed and 7.65 per attempt. He finished at 59.9 and 7.0. Obviously, it takes a special quarterback having a career year to complete 70 percent at 9.0 per attempt.

"That's a very unique combination," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "The completion percentage to me is more important than the yards per catch, but the yards per catch has been really ridiculous. We've done an awful good job of running after the catch."

Arians used two examples by Santonio Holmes last week. One was a quick slant for 21 yards and the other was a comeback route that Holmes turned around for 41 yards.

"Those plays excite you because you don't have to throw it very far or you don't have to hold it very long to make big plays," Arians said.

For the most part, the only difference in personnel from last season is rookie receiver Mike Wallace, for whom Arians pushed hard on draft day.

In training camp, Arians believed the speed of Wallace and Holmes would open up the middle of the field for Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller. But Arians yesterday wouldn't say that Wallace has been the reason for Roethlisberger's success.

"Nate (Washington) was a solid player," Arians said of last season's team. "Heath was out two-and-a-half weeks. Ben didn't practice for seven weeks; he just played in games. I think it's just having everybody healthy on this side of the field. The continuity – knock on wood – has been very good, and if we can maintain it, I think it'll stay very good."

The Steelers should be able to maintain that success Sunday against a Vikings pass defense that was having problems before losing Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield with a sprained foot.

The Vikings allowed over 277 yards passing in each of their last three games. Winfield was injured in the second quarter last week, and Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens passed for 196 yards in the fourth quarter alone.

Roethlisberger was asked about attacking what's clearly a glaring Vikings weakness.

"We just have to go in and worry about what we have to do," he said. "We can't go in and say we need to attack this defensive lineman or this linebacker or this defensive back. We just have to go in and play offensively the way we know how and let the chips fall where they will."

Roethlisberger knows better than to say anything else. But a few moments later he let escape his true feelings over the lack of respect being shown him by the national media.

That's the gathering storm this week.

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