Historically known for a grinding, physical running game that embodied the hardscrabble character of the city, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a passing fancy in 2009.
In his sixth season, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose status skyrocketed in 2008 when he won a second Super Bowl championship in four years, has been handed the keys to the traditional family car. And it hasn't taken Roethlisberger long to trade in the nondescript minivan for a sleek, sporty model.
Roethlisberger, who had never before logged 30 or more attempts in more than seven straight outings, has thrown at least 30 passes in all six games this season. Only five years ago, as a rookie in 2004, Roethlisberger never threw more than 28 passes in a game. And he has passed for 220 or more yards in all six games this season, one shy of his personal best of seven games in 2006.
Through six contests last season, Roethlisberger averaged 25.3 pass attempts and 28.3 dropbacks. The corresponding averages so far this season are 34.5 and 37.2.
"We've put the game in his hands more than in the past," said veteran wide receiver Hines Ward, who at age 33 leads the NFL in receiving yards (599) and is tied for the top spot in catches (41). "It's exciting. Just like with the run, you can get into a rhythm and it's a lot of fun."
If individual 300-yard performances are any indication, so is everybody else, as NFL quarterbacks who reach the 300-yard mark in a game are winning big.
Quarterbacks who have thrown for 300 yards this season are 29-10, a winning percentage of .743. That represents the best winning percentage since the NFL expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Combined with last season, when 300-yard passers were 47-28-1, that's a .665 winning mark in 2008-2009. The aggregate winning percentage for QBs who threw for more than 300 yards in a game from 1978 to 2007 was just .504. In that stretch, 300-yard passers won fewer than 55 percent of their games in 25 of 30 seasons.
In six weeks of play (90 games) in 2009, there have been 39 performances of 300 yards or more. Extrapolated over the entire 256-game season, that projects to 111 games with 300 individual passing yards. Since the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule in 1978, the record for 300-yard games a season is 81 in 2004 and 2007. For all of last season, there were 76 games of 300 yards or more.
"It's not like [teams] have abandoned the [running game]," said New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, whose 31.8 attempts per game would have been considered gaudy not all that long ago, but which currently rank only 18th in the league. "You've still got to have balance. But more teams have [concluded] you score by throwing the ball. And, so, yeah, they're throwing it a lot. Offenses are lining up with three or four wide receivers, putting the quarterback in the shotgun, and throwing it around."
Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who gives Roethlisberger major input into the Steelers' weekly game plans, has given his QB more freedom. Pittsburgh often goes to a no-huddle, spread-type offense to hasten momentum, and Roethlisberger frequently suggests that option. The quarterback concedes that it's tempting to get into the shotgun, with four wide receivers spreading the field, and throw virtually every down.
But he isn't the only one.
Baltimore second-year quarterback Joe Flacco is averaging nearly 10 passes more per game (37.5-27.8) than he did in the first six contests of his '08 rookie campaign. Eight quarterbacks are averaging 35-plus passes per game, and Arizona's Kurt Warner and New England's Tom Brady are averaging more than 40 attempts each.
With quarterbacks arguably more accurate than ever before, and a 60-percent completion rate considered just passable, there figure to be more 300-yard games. It may not sit well with football purists, but wingin' it and winnin' appear to be intertwined this season.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.