Detroit They came in waves from all directions, occasionally blindsiding him from angles he couldn't have anticipated. Other times they blitzed up the middle, challenging him face-to-face and daring him to stand up to the pressure.
No matter what their strategy was, Ben Roethlisberger always had the answer — adjusting on the fly when needed, or adeptly sidestepping anything he wished to avoid with the polish and poise of a John Elway or a Terry Bradshaw.
Now, if only Roethlisberger can stand up to the Seattle Seahawks the way he did the dreaded media day at the Super Bowl.
“This is the best part of it, talking to you guys,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday. “Being the quarterback, you know that cameras are pointed at you and people want to talk to you. You have to be smart — and know it comes with the territory.”
The Steelers kept their 23-year-old quarterback away from the media hordes Monday, not including him among a six-player contingent made available for interviews. That created speculation they were worried Roethlisberger might be overwhelmed or distracted by the kind of attention no NFL player gets before any other game.
Turns out Roethlisberger handled his Super Bowl unveiling as easily as he did the Bengals, Colts and Broncos during the AFC playoffs. And certainly better than some much older quarterbacks at Super Bowls past — Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas was grumpy and glum-faced at media day before the Jets' mega-upset of Baltimore in January 1969, possibly because Earl Morrall was starting ahead of him.
Roethlisberger couldn't have looked more at ease. Relaxing at an elevated podium as reporters crowded five deep around him on the Ford Field turf, he tugged at the scraggly but lucky-charm beard he can't wait to shave — “win or lose,” he said — and answered everything thrown his way.
His personal life?
“I have no personal life,” he said.
Roethlisberger briefly dated LPGA rising star Natalie Gulbis last summer. He recently said it was so difficult for him to go out in public that he now finds it's easier to meet women on the Internet than in person.
The helmet-less motorcycle riding that so bothered coach Bill Cowher last spring? “That's why I grew my hair long, so it could blow on the wind — but we can't talk about my motorcycle,” he said, laughing.
And what does he dislike about going on the road for a fourth consecutive game, even if the Super Bowl is officially a neutral-site game?
“My dog,” he said, speaking fondly of the Rottweiler named Zeus that stayed back in Pittsburgh. “If I could have my dog here it would be perfect, but coach Cowher wouldn't let me bring him.”
Really sounds like guy is bamboozled by all the attention, huh?
Because he's taken the Steelers to an AFC title game and a Super Bowl in his first two seasons — no other NFL QB has done that — Roethlisberger will be the better known of the two quarterbacks Sunday.
Matt Hasselbeck seems to be the perfect quarterback for a Seattle team that, until now, rarely gets much national attention: steady but not spectacular, a solid playmaker but not a big star.
“This week hasn't been bad at all,” Hasselbeck said. I'm actually enjoying it.”
Roethlisberger wants to be that big star, talking openly of wanting to be remembered as one of the best in the game's history, but realizes that the Steelers' team concept will never allow him to accumulate the numbers of a Dan Marino.
Maybe Roethlisberger seems so relaxed this week because this is the closest thing to a backyard Super Bowl for him. He grew up 100 miles away in Findlay, Ohio, and his parents and teenage sister are coming this weekend to share the moment.
Or maybe it's because he has a support crew that extends beyond the Steelers.
Roethlisberger has become friends with several prominent NFL quarterbacks of the past, including Marino and Warren Moon, and often seeks their advice.
Moon was on hand Tuesday at Ford Field, giving Roethlisberger a big hug and words of support. Roethlisberger and Marino have talked several times this week.
“He told me to stay focused and that I'd get butterflies and get nervous and that there would be a lot of anxious feelings, but to make sure to keep them under control and not let them get the best of me early,” Roethlisberger said.
Or, exactly what he allowed to happen a year ago, when his three interceptions in a 41-27 loss to New England doomed the Steelers to their fourth AFC title game defeat at home in 11 years.
Roethlisberger's rapid transformation from nervous, easily shaken rookie to the in-control leader he is now explains why offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt opened up his playbook during the Steelers' three consecutive road playoff victories.
“His development is the reason why we are here,” Jerome Bettis said of the quarterback who can become the youngest to win a Super Bowl. “We've had some really good teams but, unfortunately, we haven't been able to get over the hump. He's been able to do that.”
Consider this: During four consecutive Steelers championship game losses from the 1995 season through last year (three AFC title games and one Super Bowl), their quarterbacks threw a combined 12 interceptions — three in each game. Roethlisberger threw none as Pittsburgh beat Denver 34-17 in the AFC title game a weekend ago.
“I was a little overconfident last year,” Roethlisberger said. “This year, I understand where I'm at.”
At the Super Bowl. Where every mistake is magnified, every flaw is exposed, every error can sink a season. And, too, where good teams and good players separate themselves and find greatness.
The Steelers, who haven't been so confident about a postseason quarterback since Bradshaw went 4-for-4 in Super Bowls, are convinced Roethlisberger will hold up Sunday just fine.
“Ben is different with his confidence this year. He has trust in everyone around him and he makes the team work for him,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “He has been a phenomenal leader.”