Things went downhill from rookie's first pass

PITTSBURGH -- For 26 seasons now, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been chasing the elusive "one for the thumb," the fifth championship ring this proud franchise has sought since triumphing in Super Bowl XIV ever so long ago.

Tough piece of jewelry to secure, though, when you've got a rookie quarterback who has recently performed as if he has 10 thumbs.

For "Big Ben," aka Ben Roethlisberger, the clock has tolled ominously of late. And on Sunday evening, in the Steelers' lopsided 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, the timepiece finally struck midnight. The team's first-round draft choice, undefeated in 14 NFL starts and having won 27 straight outings dating back to his college career, didn't really turn into a pumpkin.

Instead, he turned into a rookie, after having played much of the season in brilliant style, with the savvy of a player well beyond his years. And everyone knows what genius New England coach Bill Belichick and his exotic game plans do to rookies, right? So chalk up another victim for the NFL's reigning head coach guru and pencil into the ledger a tough learning experience for Roethlisberger.

"What I've got to do now," acknowledged Roethlisberger, who completed 14 of 24 passes for 226 yards, with two touchdown passes and three interceptions, "is take the offseason and learn from this. But it won't be easy, given the way the season ended, because we felt we would still be playing (in the Super Bowl). In a lot of ways, it was a storybook kind of a season. But the last chapter wasn't exactly a happy ending, I guess."

Roethlisberger didn't get off to a very auspicious beginning, for that matter, in his second matchup against Belichick and the New England defense. Belichick is now 14-0 against quarterbacks in his second meeting against them, and it didn't take long on Sunday to see why. On his first pass of the game, facing a third-and-three from his own 32-yard line on the initial possession of the contest, Roethlisberger threw behind and too high for slot receiver Antwaan Randle El.

The errant pass was tipped by New England cornerback Asante Samuel and intercepted by free safety Eugene Wilson. The Patriots cashiered the turnover, with Adam Vinatieri knocking home a 48-yard field goal.

But the Wilson pickoff was hardly Roethlisberger's most egregious gaffe of the game.

That came late in the first half, with Roethlisberger attempting to rally the Steelers from a 17-3 deficit. Moving the ball pretty nicely, and finally approximating some semblance of rhythm, Roethlisberger faced a second-and-six at the New England 19-yard line. On the play, he threw for tight end Jerame Tuman in the right flat, and Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison jumped in front of the out route and went 87 yards for a touchdown.

Instead of having narrowed the New England lead to 17-10, or at least 17-6, the Steelers suddenly trailed by three touchdowns. At that point, essentially, the game was over.

The interception by Harrison, who got a block by linebacker Mike Vrabel on the young quarterback (the definition of adding insult to injury), was a superb individual play, no denying it, by a wily veteran. But the play also reflected the problems that had plagued Roethlisberger late in the season. His mechanics, once again, were sloppy. He sort of side-armed the ball and it floated on him. He never really turned his hips and stepped into the throw.

For all the talk of Roethlisberger's slump and the reasons for it -- the rumor that he was playing with a sprained thumb on his throwing hand, concerns about him wearing gloves on both hands last week, worries that defenses had caught up to him -- what betrayed the youngster the most in the final month of the season and in his two postseason games was the deterioration of his mechanics.

In his final six starts of the season, counting the two postseason games, Roethlisberger had eight touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. He threw only six interceptions in his first nine starts of the year.

Roethlisberger abandoned the glove on his right hand on Sunday and that certainly did not make things any better. Fact is, another more celebrated entertainer, that Michael Jackson guy, wears just one glove. And he couldn't have thrown the ball much worse at times Sunday than did Roethlisberger, who had five interceptions and three touchdown passes in his two exposures to playoff football.

You think the five interceptions were bad? If Samuel had any kind of hands, the number of picks thrown by Roethlisberger would have been much worse. Asante had four passes defensed and three times the second-year veteran dropped what should have been interceptions.

"It's tough, but it has happened before, throwing interceptions early," Roethlisberger said. "It is one of those things where you have to bounce back. Unfortunately, this was not a great game on my part. The defense kept us in it for a while. We scored a few times (in the second half). But I just made too many mistakes today."

Which is why the Steelers and Roethlisberger, who certainly earned a thumbs-down for their Sunday performances, will go into the 2005 season still trying to capture that fifth Super Bowl title.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.