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BELIEVE IT: BIG BEN IS THE REAL THING

No rookie quarterback in National Football League history has ever started with a comparable flourish, has ever stepped into the starting lineup and won his first seven games, has had the resurrection of a franchise attributed in large part to his poise and versatility.

You keep waiting for reality to set in for Ben Roethlisberger, who a year ago, while at Miami (Ohio), was using his arm and deceptive mobility to torch the likes of the University at Buffalo. But with every passing week it's apparent that this is the reality, that the kid is the rarest of rarities, a first-year passer who has instantly acclimated himself to the complexities of the NFL, a franchise quarterback coming to the fore.

Roethlisberger was brilliant beyond statistical measures as the Pittsburgh Steelers methodically disposed of the loose-lipped Cleveland Browns, 24-10, Sunday in Browns Stadium. His quarterback rating was a mere 63, average by his standards. He attempted only 16 passes, threw for a scant 134 yards. Stack his day against that of power back Jerome Bettis, who ran for 103, and it might seem Roethlisberger was incidental to the Steelers' seventh straight victory, a quarterback along for the ride.

It wasn't that way at all. He erased a 3-0 deficit by going 4 for 4 for 52 yards on the Steelers' first touchdown drive, a 93-yard march straight into the teeth of the Dawg Pound, the end-zone home of the most zealous Cleveland fans. He scrambled for 20 yards on the second touchdown drive, a 62-yard advance that established a 14-3 Pittsburgh advantage late in the second quarter. He finished with 38 yards on seven carries, equaling the output of Lee Suggs, Cleveland's top rusher.

Here's how highly the Steelers have come to regard Roethlisberger, the third quarterback selected in the Arms Race draft of April. Hines Ward, a 6-foot, 215-pound wide receiver, sprinted back into the play and leveled Orpheus Roye, Cleveland's 6-4, 320-pound lineman, near the end of the quarterback's scramble down to the 6. Pancaked him.

"He'd do the same thing for me," Ward said.

He probably would. Roethlisberger is 6-4, 240 pounds, Drew Bledsoe with three extra gears. He's a consummate gamer, concerned with nothing more than the final result. By now success should be going to his head. By now he should be relishing stepping in for an injured Tommy Maddox and sparking the revival of a franchise that went 6-10 last year and made scant changes in the offseason.

Instead, he defers all the credit to his linemen, his receivers, his running backs, sidestepping the celebrity being continually thrust his way. He refused to bask in beating the Browns, not even with his hometown of Findlay, Ohio, just two hours away, with family and friends and old coaches in attendance.

"It means a lot coming home, being in Ohio, but it's another win for this team," he said. "And once again, after this game, like every press conference, I say it: We're 0-0. We're trying to go 1-0 next week."

The Browns, stupid them, had squandered any hope of catching the high-flying Steelers in a lull. Defensive tackle Gerard Warren, typically more talk than action, brought Pittsburgh to strict attention late in the week by declaring he was going to ring Roethlisberger's bell if the chance arose. "Kill the head and the body dies," is how Warren put it, prompting the league office to promise swift and severe action if he followed through on the threat.

Until Warren's bravado, the Steelers were susceptible to a letdown, a backstep. They'd stamped themselves as legitimate AFC title contenders by becoming the first team in league history to score consecutive victories over unbeaten teams with six or more wins, first the Patriots, then the Eagles. They'd already stomped the Browns once this season. Taking Cleveland seriously figured to be a bit of a challenge.

But Warren's remark was a hit of caffeine, an eye-opener, just the thing to keep the Steelers from embracing complacency.

"If you're going to do something, don't say it to the public," Ward said. "Then you're just looking for something bad to happen."

The Browns went from bad to worse. A fight erupted at midfield 45 minutes before kickoff, after Browns starting tailback William Green and Steelers linebacker Joey Porter started heaving trash talk. Punches were thrown. Green and Porter were ejected, the wound deeper for the offensively dysfunctional Browns.

The Steelers came out all business. Roethlisberger nearly found Ward on a bomb on Pittsburgh's second play, the pass intercepted when the receiver, who had a step, was felled by tangled feet. It was a harbinger, an indication the Steelers felt they could attack the Browns anyway they might choose. Roethlisberger gives them that flexibility.

"He does an excellent job," said receiver Plaxico Burress. "Tremendous poise. He's very talented, not only from within the pocket but outside the pocket. He creates plays when everything else has broken down around him. He just keeps staying alive, and you can't practice against that during the week. You can't say enough about the kid."

The hard part is getting the kid to say anything about himself. He even makes you wonder if he's enjoying himself.

"Absolutely," Roethlisberger insisted. "I'm having a lot of fun."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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