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Roethlisberger delivers on third down

PITTSBURGH -- In a game that reflected the toughness that fans here have come to relish, and the grittiness that Pittsburgh Steelers first-year head coach Mike Tomlin expects, it was left to a guy who knows a little bit about both those qualities to define the two elements during a 21-0 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

With both starting wide receivers sidelined -- including deep-threat Santonio Holmes, who suffered a strained hamstring during pregame warm-ups -- quarterback Ben Roethlisberger overcame some early lapses in marksmanship Sunday to rally an offense coming off what he termed an "embarrassing" performance in last week's road loss at Arizona.

And Pittsburgh's defense, which played without Pro Bowlers strong safety Troy Polamalu and nose tackle Casey Hampton, pitched its first shutout at Heinz Field and the first against the Seahawks since 2000.

"Everybody in a helmet today was a playmaker," said Tomlin, who has stressed to the Steelers the need to overcome obstacles. "This was an attrition football game. ... But the standard of expectation doesn't change here, no matter who's in the huddle. And our guys delivered under adversity. "

No one delivered more than Roethlisberger, who after last week's 21-14 defeat accepted culpability for a defeat in which he threw two interceptions, including one in the end zone. And certainly no one made a bigger difference on critical third-down plays.

The Steelers doubled up the Seahawks in several key statistical categories, including first downs (19-8), total yards (342-144) and time of possession (40:45-19:15). But it was their advantage on third-down situations, on which the Steelers moved the chains eight times to four conversions for Seattle, that created the most critical difference in the game.

And the Steelers owned that edge in largely because of Roethlisberger's uncanny ability to keep alive drives with big plays, most of them authored under duress from a pass rush that sacked him three times.

Roethlisberger completed 10-of-12 third-down passes for 129 yards, with one touchdown pass, a 13-yarder to tight end Heath Miller, and no interceptions. His passer rating on third down was a red-hot 136.7. Seven of his third-down completions netted first downs for an offense that moved only spasmodically through the first quarter and a half of the game.

For the game, Roethlisberger was 18-for-22 for 206 yards, with the one touchdown pass, no pickoffs and a 120.8 efficiency rating. In one stretch, he hit 16-of-17 attempts, including 13 in a row.

"That's the kind of stuff that builds your team's confidence," said Roethlisberger of his third-down prowess. "It pumps you up a little bit. And I think it takes something out of the other [team], too, when you hit on a third down and keep them on the field. I mean, the one drive that opened the second half, I looked up at one point and there was only five minutes left in the quarter."

In fact, that third-quarter possession, on which Pittsburgh went 80 yards on 17 plays in 10 minutes, 17 seconds, was certainly a microcosm of the ability of Roethlisberger and the Steelers to thumb their noses at adversity much of the afternoon.

On the possession that essentially broke the game open, Pittsburgh overcame three holding calls in one seven-play stretch and a 10-yard sack to score on backup tailback Najeh Davenport's one-yard dive over left tackle. Unofficially, the Steelers gained 107 yards on the drive, which opened up a 14-0 lead. Most importantly, though, the Steelers converted three long third-down plays.

Roethlisberger threw to wideout Cedrick Wilson for 15 yards on a third-and-13. Then he hit Miller for 13 yards on a third-and-8. On a third-and-17, following a 10-yard sack by Ellis Wyms, he went back to Wilson again for 17 yards.

"Those plays," said Seattle free safety Deon Grant, "are [killers]. You've got to make a play on third down. They did and we didn't. It's that simple. We'd put them in a hole, then we couldn't keep them down. We couldn't get ourselves off the field."

The fact that the Pittsburgh offense was able to so thoroughly control the tempo against a very good Seattle defense, and without the fast emerging Holmes and four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Hines Ward (sprained knee), must be a confidence builder.

Everyone knows that tough, aggressive defense is a Pittsburgh staple, and that was the case again in shutting down a high-powered Seahawks attack. Pittsburgh pestered quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, holding him to an anemic 116 yards and a 44.7 passer rating and sacking him twice. Tailback Shaun Alexander, who looked tentative as he continues to play with a cast on his broken left wrist, managed 25 yards on 11 carries.

Counting playoff contests, it was the 30th straight outing in which the Steelers did not allow an individual 100-yard performance. In the second half, the Steelers surrendered just one first down and 33 yards on 13 snaps. And the shutout was only the second against a Mike Holmgren-coached team in 245 regular-season games.

But even without Polamalu and Hampton, the Steelers' defense still has a lot of playmakers.

If the offense can develop a few more key components to go along with Ward and Holmes, tailback Willie Parker (28 carries for 102 yards) and Miller (four receptions, 44 yards) -- and if Roethlisberger manages games the way he did Sunday -- the Steelers could surprise some people.

At 4-1, in first place in the AFC North and with a bye next week, which will allow some wounded players should be able to recover before Pittsburgh resumes play at Denver on Oct. 21, the Steelers exited Heinz Field on Sunday feeling pretty confident about themselves.

With good reason.

"The coaches keep challenging us," wide receiver Nate Washington said. "And we keep demonstrating to them we're ready to step up to the challenge. We showed that today."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.