By John Perrotto
PITTSBURGH _ Ben Roethlisberger has long yearned to throw on every down.
Steelers management, though, has always wanted its offense to center around ball control.
Sunday, both sides got what they wanted, merging their wishes into a pivotal 25-17 victory over the New England Patriots at Heinz Field. The win enabled the Steelers (6-2) to pass the Patriots (5-2) for the best record in the AFC.
The Steelers pounded away at the Patriots’ defense and kept long-time nemesis Tom Brady off the field. The Steelers had 72 plays from scrimmage to the Patriots’ 36, handily won the time of possession battle by a 39:23-20:37 margin and held a 29-19 edge in first downs.
Yet the Steelers also unleashed Roethlisberger, allowing him to throw 50 passes.
It certainly seemed incongruous on the surface to throw so hard and control the ball but it certainly worked as the Steelers got a rare win over Brady. He had been 6-1 in his career against the Steelers, including victories in the 2001 and 2004 AFC Championship Games at Heinz Field.
Roethlisberger easily outshone Brady as he threw for 365 yards and two touchdowns while completing 36 of his 50 throws. Brady was 24 of 35 for 198 yards and two scores.
“We kind of showed what we can do without running the ball,” Roethlisberger said.
“We can take the short pass and the screen to the wide receiver and we can move the ball.”
Roethlisberger threw for 300 yards in consecutive games for the third time in his eight-year career. He had a 321-yard game in a win at Arizona the previous Sunday.
The Steelers did that without any receiver having a big day. Second-year wideout Antonio Brown had a career-high nine receptions for 67 yards while tight end Heath Miller had seven catches for 85 yards, Mike Wallace caught seven balls for 70 yards and Emmanual Sanders had five catches for 70 yards.
The Steelers never had a completion of more than 26 yards, quite a change for a team that has relied on the big strike to Wallace for much of the season.
“You would have thought that the game plan was just dink-and-dunk but that is what (the Patriots) gave us,” Roethlisbeger said. “For us, taking away the deep ball, it opens the underneath stuff. For us, you think about possessing the ball, the time of possession and ball control, it’s running the ball.”
This time, though, it “was a little different,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers had only 22 rushes, which accounted for just 30 percent of their plays. The Steelers, though, made the most of them, averaging 4.3 yards a carry and Rashard Mendenhall had 70 yards on 13 carries.
Yet they were still able to keep the ball out of Brady’s hands and that was the key going in.
“It was paramount,” Tomlin said of controlling the ball. “We tried to control it with the pass a little bit and we were able to do that with Ben Roethlisberger. He threw some completions early and we were able to control the ball in that fashion. That was necessary for us to be good and be on schedule with the chains like we were.”
The question now is if the Steelers can control the ball with the pass on a regular basis, taking some pressure off a patchwork offensive line and an inconsistent running game.
“Why not?” Roethlisberger said. “If the line gives me time to get the ball off and I make accurate throws, we can do it.”