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Burress' timely return calms Roethlisberger



Published: Fri, January 14, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Steelers quarterback is relieved to have his favorite receiver back.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been noticeably loose and relaxed during the Pittsburgh Steelers' practices this week. Maybe it's because he's trying to show the world -- mostly, the New York Jets -- the playoff pressure isn't getting to him.

Or maybe it's because he will have Plaxico Burress to throw to in Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Jets.

Burress, one of the NFL's best downfield receivers, missed all but one of the past six games with a sore hamstring, and his absence had a noticeable impact on Roethlisberger's play. It's no coincidence Roethlisberger's worst game this season, against the Jets in a 17-6 Pittsburgh victory Dec. 12, came with Burress out.

"The Jets, they were putting eight, nine guys in the box [to take away the run]," Burress said. "When we were going with one-receiver sets, they were actually having nine and 10 in the box. Hopefully, I can have an impact so those guys [Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley] can run around a little bit in the backfield."

Stuffed the line

By stacking so many defenders around the line of scrimmage, the Jets were telling the Steelers they didn't think Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El could get open downfield.

They didn't. Roethlisberger was a season-worst 9-of-19 for 144 yards, with 24 yards in the first half, and Ward and Randle El had three catches between them.

But Burress and his 19.9 yards per catch average, the second-highest among starting NFL receivers, pose a problem to defenses that choose to load up against the run. He has 11 of the team's 25 catches of 25 yards or longer, and his presence means the Jets must commit at least one safety to full-time pass coverage.

Burress, at 6-foot-5, also presents a matchup problem to cornerbacks David Barrett and Donnie Abraham, both of whom are 5-10.

"Any time Plaxico isn't playing, you miss him," said Roethlisberger, who has become good friends with Burress and lives in the same townhouse community as the receiver. "That's a no-brainer. Plax is a guy that even if he catches no balls, he is an influence on the defense tremendously."

Burress' influence was felt when he returned Dec. 26 against Baltimore to make three catches for 97 yards and an opening-drive touchdown in a 20-7 victory. He sat out a meaningless game against Buffalo a week later to not aggravate his hamstring.

"Hopefully, we'll come out this week and throw the ball downfield a couple of times, make some big plays and have those guys back up and stop sitting on our pass routes," Burress said.

Lineup adjustments

His return also allows Randle El to return to being a slot receiver, thus presenting multiple threats when Pittsburgh goes to three-receiver sets.

"I would like to think I can make a big difference if I'm playing any week," Burress said. "But I don't sit there and say I was missed in one particular game more than another. Hopefully I can make some plays and we can run the ball well."

Burress also is feeling the urgency to win now. He can become a free agent after this season, and the Steelers traditionally allow such players to leave for the big money elsewhere -- though his relationship with Roethlisberger could alter their thinking.

Burress was in his second season when the Steelers were upset by New England in the January 2002 AFC Championship game, and he realized later what a wasted opportunity it was.

"I told myself since that happened that if I am given the opportunity again, I will go out and make the best of it," he said. "That's the attitude everybody around here has, to go out and seize that opportunity."




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