PITTSBURGH -- The Philadelphia Eagles' defensive players were wrung out but not beaten down. They'd known, coming into the game, that they were in for a nightmare against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and nothing about the way he played in this 16-14 meat grinder of an Eagles loss surprised them. It was all familiar from experience and tape -- the pressure without the sacks, the extended plays that require defensive backs to stay with receivers much longer than usual, the one crucial play he makes that looked as though he absolutely couldn't.
"That's been his M.O. his whole career," Eagles safety Kurt Coleman said. "Until you hear that whistle, you stay with your guy, because you know he's not going to cut it off or give up. And really, I don't think he made any big plays on us passing. Just short stuff, and take what's there, and one more play than we were able to make on that last drive."
A lot of what Coleman said about the Steelers quarterback could describe the way Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has played this year -- in certain spots. With teams dropping safeties way back to take away the big plays, Vick at his fourth-quarter best this season has been able to manage games, pick apart defenses underneath and, yes, keep plays alive with his legs. The manner in which Roethlisberger plays quarterback could serve as a model for Vick. Vick takes pride in his ability to extend plays, and Roethlisberger is the two-time Super Bowl-winning modern master of it.
There is, however, the issue of those turnovers, of which Vick had two more, to run his personal season total to an eye-popping 11 in five games. This time, when the Steelers had just a little bit more fourth-quarter magic than Vick and the Eagles had, it was enough to make the difference. The Eagles felt good about the way they'd played in a brutally tough venue, and they're obviously not going to look at this game as any kind of indictment of their chances over the remaining 11. But all of their talk about how the Steelers made just one more play than they did ignores the fact that they didn't have to be playing from behind in the first place.
"It's always frustrating," running back LeSean McCoy said of the fact that the Eagles have now turned the ball over 14 times this year. "I think that has to contribute to the loss. It's something we've been talking about, turnovers, and we've got to stop them. This was another game where it cost us at the end."
Vick would do well to look to Roethlisberger, who plays the way Vick believes he should, but does so with much more confidence and certainty. When the pocket collapses around Roethlisberger, as it has throughout his career, he treats it as part of his plan. He keeps his eyes downfield, his arm cocked. He might throw one of his patented pump-fakes to try to distract his pursuers into slowing up. He constantly maintains the belief and appearance that something will pop loose. And he retains his ability to see and read the entire field even as things are exploding within inches of where he stands.
When the pocket collapses around Vick, as it has all season and likely will as long as the Eagles continue to play with backup players at center and left tackle, he flips out. The ball drops to his side. The switch in his mind flips to the running back setting. You can see him fight it, and sometimes he succeeds, but he's not the best reader of fields and defenses in the first place, and by the time he's had to duck or dodge a pass-rusher, his ability to find an open receiver might just be down to blind luck.
Roethlisberger on Sunday was a study in patience and responsibility. ESPN Stats & Information tells us that his average pass traveled 6.4 yards downfield, his lowest such figure for a game since Week 8 of last season. He was 19-for-27 for 176 yards when throwing the ball fewer than 10 yards down the field. He was 2-for-10 for 31 yards when throwing it 11 yards or farther. The key, of course, was understanding what he was up against and what his best chance was to beat it.
"Their DBs are good," Roethlisberger said of the Eagles. "They're all over you, and there are some really small windows. It's a frustrating day when you get a great defense, because you want to do so much, and there are plays you feel you've left out there."
But Roethlisberger doesn't let frustration or worry or panic affect the way he plays. And it's that aspect of his game that Vick could stand to emulate more. When this game was over, Vick stood and talked about his two first-half fumbles and whether they were a result of trying to do too much.
"That's been my style, and I've never really had a problem fumbling the football," Vick said. "I have no explanation for it. There's really none."
It may be that Vick can't be the kind of quarterback who can minimize the risk inherent in his game. It may be that the best way for the Eagles to operate with Vick as their quarterback is to loosen the reins, let him play the all-out style that made 2010 so much fun and just let the turnover chips fall where they may. They seem to have a good enough defense -- and enough psychological toughness -- to play these types of games week in and week out and still have a good season. It may be that they have to use those things, and Vick's potential excellence, to overcome the problems brought on by their quarterback's inability to become more responsible with the ball.
But it also might not be that way. And if Vick is looking for an example of how to play quarterback the way he wants to play the position, but also play it responsibly, he might do well to realize that such an example just dropped him and his team to 3-2.