PITTSBURGH — Tom Brady’s statistics didn’t wow Ben Roethlisberger as much as his winning did.
When Roethlisberger joined the Steelers in 2004, he considered the Patriots’ Brady to be the NFL’s pre-eminent quarterback. Certainly, Brady’s numbers were good enough, but it was his determination to win that most impressed the ever-competitive Roethlisberger.
Six years later, Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls himself, putting him only one behind Brady. Still, his opinion hasn’t changed — to Roethlisberger, the quarterback he’ll oppose Sunday night in Heinz Field is the NFL’s gold standard.
The record’s the reason.
Despite his own successful career to date, Roethlisberger is 2-3 against New England, with one win coming when Brady was injured in 2008. Brady, by contrast, is 5-1 against Pittsburgh, completing 143 of 212 passes for 1,658 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Roethlisberger’s first NFL loss came in the final game of his rookie season, New England’s 41-27 rout of Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game in January 2005. Roethlisberger’s first regular-season loss came eight months later to Brady-led New England at Heinz Field, but the Steelers rebounded that season to win the Super Bowl.
Going against Brady and the Patriots (6-2) gives him such a kick, Roethlisberger said, “We’ll play on Wednesday at 2 o’clock if we have to.”
How about Sunday at 8:20 p.m. EST?
“Tom Brady, who I think is probably the greatest in the game right now, is on the other side, so to watch him go against this great (Pittsburgh) defense is fun as well,” Roethlisberger said.
Some NFL players won’t acknowledge they enjoy watching a player on a different team, but that’s not difficult for Roethlisberger. Well-known for his can’t-beat-me attitude — his teammates say he tries hard to win at everything from table tennis to garbage-basket basketball — Roethlisberger pays close attention whenever Brady is on the field.
Maybe it takes a winner to be impressed by another winner. Brady (103-32, .763) and Roethlisberger (63-27, .700) rank 1-2 among active quarterbacks in regular-season winning percentage. Counting playoff games, Brady is 117-36 (.765) and Roethlisberger is 71-29 (.710).
“You just sit there and watch him, I love watching whether it’s on TV or live,” Roethlisberger said. “Hopefully, he doesn’t get to do too much this week, because that means our defense is doing great things.”
And what does Roethlisberger admire most in Brady?
“He’s a good passer, a good leader, he seems to do a little bit of everything,” said Roethlisberger, who is 80 of 141 for 1,004 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions in his five starts against New England.
Both Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have concerns going into a game in which the winner will emerge with a share of the NFL’s best record. Pittsburgh also is 6-2.
Brady sat out practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday by a sprained foot. Roethlisberger, coming off a so-so game Monday night against Cincinnati, is adjusting to possibly having two new protectors on his blind side. Left tackle Max Starks (neck) is out for the season, and left guard Chris Kemoeatu (sprained knee) hasn’t practice this week.
Roethlisberger also hasn’t totally shaken off the rest from his four-game suspension, although Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn’t see much difference in him in the four games he’s played.
“You’d have a hard time saying, ‘Oh, this is ’08, this is ’09, this is ’10′,” Belichick said. “Ben looks like Ben. He has a great style of play. He’s a very physical guy, hard to tackle, hard to get down, makes a lot of big plays down the field, uses all his receivers.”
New England’s pass defense statistically is the NFL’s fourth-worst, but then Pittsburgh’s offense is the fifth-worst. Roethlisberger discards these numbers, saying any defense with a safety such as Brandon Meriweather will be challenging.
Brady, who averaged 385.5 yards passing in his last two starts against Pittsburgh, knows going against Pittsburgh’s exotic zone blitzes can be one of the NFL’s biggest challenges. The Steelers rank 24th against the pass, but lead the league in rushing defense and are No. 4 overall.
“We’ve been winning for a long time, they’ve been winning for a long time,” Brady said. “You win for reasons. We’re extremely well-coached, they’re extremely well-coached. We try to be tough and physical, they’re certainly very tough and physical. They play smart, they make big plays.”