Commentary

Big Ben poses big problems for Jets' D

With Manning and Brady conquered, only Roethlisberger stands in way of Super Bowl

Updated: January 18, 2011, 11:20 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets' playoff opener against Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was a defensive gem, and their brilliant game planning against probable league MVP Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Sunday's redemptive AFC divisional-round win in Foxborough, Mass., was even better. But for the Jets' defense, those two wins were all about executing schemes. Now, how do the Jets prepare for the Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, the third and last member of the playoff quarterbacking gauntlet that Jets coach Rex Ryan has called "Mission: Impossible"?

How do you prepare to wrestle the AFC title away from a guy who not only has already won two Super Bowls in his first six seasons but also leads the league at being clutch?

"I don't think anything really works with that guy because he makes it up as he goes along," said Jets defensive lineman Trevor Pryce, who played in AFC North showdowns and postseason wars against Roethlisberger when he and Ryan were both with the Baltimore Ravens. Most of those games ended painfully.

"The guy is a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of football player, one of the two, three biggest challenges in this league, because you can't prepare for what he naturally does," Pryce continued. "How do you prepare to tackle a guy as big as a polar bear? How do you prepare for a guy who can flick a ball 50 yards at the drop of a dime? How do you prepare for a guy who can run like he does? How do you prepare for someone who wants to win like he wants to win? … There have been many times I've had two hands wrapped around him, and he just doesn't go down. … He's a genetic freak."

Barely 24 hours after Sunday's emotional win over the Patriots, Pryce was still willing to take a few jabs at Brady, joking about how slow on foot the New England quarterback is compared to Roethlisberger. ("Actually, what I'd like to see is Brady and Drew Bledsoe in a footrace. I think my little daughter could beat both of them," Pryce said.) But you could listen to Pryce talk for 15 minutes Monday, walk the Jets' locker room from one corner to the other, then sit through Ryan's entire 20-minute news conference, and you'd still hear nothing but compliments for Roethlisberger.

[+] EnlargeRoethlisberger
Jason Bridge/US PresswireThe Jets will have their hands full with Big Ben on Sunday. "How do you prepare to tackle a guy as big as a polar bear?" Trevor Pryce quipped.

With admiration, several Jets mentioned a nasty game on Dec. 5 in which Roethlisberger, already playing on a broken ankle, took a nasty hit across the face from Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata but pushed the Steelers to victory anyway, even though, as Roethlisberger later joked, he noticed a lot of teammates "looking at me funny" on the sideline. His broken nose was not only bleeding badly. It was bent left like a dogleg fairway on a golf course.

Pryce said, "When I was in Baltimore my first year and Bart [Scott] kind of decapitated him, Ben came back into the game, and you know what he did? He said, 'Great hit, Bart.' He's taken beatings, and he gets up. Time after time after time."

Even Ryan -- who on Monday responded to a question asking why he hasn't made Jets-Steelers "personal" by joking, "Give me someone you want me to call out" -- had no interest in poking Roethlisberger, who beat him numerous times before this year, most notably in the 2008 AFC title game.

Ryan said only: "I don't know if I could handle [losing another one]."

Standing at his news conference podium, Ryan tried briefly to demonstrate how the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Roethlisberger behaves once he's dropped back to pass. Ryan swatted at a couple of imaginary planes like King Kong.

"Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are huge men, you know," Ryan began, "but they approach things a little different. Brady will sit in there and throw the ball at the last second. Then you hit him. Peyton, if you've got a free run and he doesn't like what he sees, even though he's the hardest guy in the league to sack, eventually he'll get down with the ball. He won't take the hit. "Whereas Roethlisberger will beat you up. He'll hold the ball, and then when you come in there, he'll go, 'Ah, now we've got a free runner, one or two guys? Ahhh, I'll just knock this guy down. Stand there. And then make plays down the field.' I mean, I've never seen a guy take the hits he can take, and also make people miss the way he does, and be as accurate on the run. And he's a lot faster athlete than you think.

After their first two playoff wins, the Jets spoke about how you can fool Manning some of the time and you can rattle Brady with pressure. But Roethlisberger? He not only extends plays by avoiding the rush and shrugging off tackles and throwing on the run -- he also makes big plays once he does. He's fearless.

On Saturday, Roethlisberger brought the Steelers roaring back from a 21-7 deficit against Baltimore to set up Sunday's showdown against the Jets. When the Jets beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh last month in the game that saved their season, the outcome wasn't decided until Roethlisberger drove Pittsburgh 82 yards in the final 2:19 and Pittsburgh tight end Matt Spaeth couldn't hang on to a pass in the end zone with seconds left. In Super Bowl XLIII two years ago, Roethlisberger took the Steelers on an eight-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a pinpoint throw that current Jet Santonio Holmes caught for a spectacular 6-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left to beat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23.

Holmes went home with the game's MVP award.

Roethlisberger, as usual, just rang up another win and more admiration among his peers. Last week, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I'm OK with that. I just want to win championships."

So how do you beat a quarterback that tough and that clutch in big games?

"Outlast him?" Jets defensive back Dwight Lowery said.

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