PITTSBURGH – There comes a moment seemingly every time the Pittsburgh Steelers face a rookie quarterback when the kid succumbs to the relentless pressure and confounding schemes drummed up by Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Eli Manning. Joe Flacco. Andy Dalton. All showed an uncanny maturity while being thrown into the NFL fray only months removed from college. All walked off the field defeated — Flacco three times in 2008 — after failing to survive the unique chaos the Steelers create.
Enter Robert Griffin III. The Washington Redskins quarterback — he of the eye-popping numbers, ridiculously fleet feet, catchy RG3 nickname and smile that's changing the culture in the nation's capital one play at a time — might be less than a year removed from winning the Heisman Trophy, but the Steelers certainly don't think he plays like a guy just getting the hang of the NFL.
"Normally when we go against a rookie quarterback I wouldn't even be here sweating. I would be like 'piece of cake,'" Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. "This guy, he presents some challenges for us and we have to be ready for him."
Pittsburgh (3-3) is 13-1 against rookie quarterbacks since LeBeau returned as defensive coordinator in 2004. Yet there is nothing typical about Griffin. While making a comparison between Griffin and Philadelphia's Michael Vick is easy, the Steelers think it's a bit misplaced.
Sure, they held Vick in check for the most part during a 16-14 win over the Eagles three weeks ago, but they're hardly predicting the same success against Griffin and the Redskins (3-4).
"He doesn't turn the ball over," Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. "He doesn't get rushed. Everything he does, it seems like he's under control."
Even when things look out of control.
Facing fourth-and-10 midway through the fourth quarter last week against the New York Giants, Griffin ran around for nearly 10 seconds before finding Logan Paulsen for a 19-yard gain. Three plays later Griffin hit Santana Moss for a go-ahead touchdown, though the worst pass defense in the NFL allowed the Giants to escape in the final 90 seconds with a 27-23 win.
The Redskins do so many different things with Griffin — lining him up in the pistol formation, working in a little option and occasionally a modified wishbone — he seems to come from another time.
Whether it's the future or the past is up for debate.
The Steelers are wearing gaudy black-and-gold striped jerseys on Sunday in tribute to the 1934 team, though it's Griffin that might have been most comfortable in that smashmouth era.
Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel hasn't seen anything resembling what the Redskins dream up for Griffin since playing Air Force Academy during his college days at BYU. Only the Falcons didn't quite work at Griffin's speed.
"He is as advertised," Keisel said. "He's as fast as anyone out there and he's going to be very tough to stop."
In that way Keisel sounds like every other player who has tried to rein in Griffin during the first half of the season. Griffin has been so spectacular at times, he's in the MVP debate even though the Redskins are in danger of missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
Griffin insists he's not caught up in the hype surrounding all that comes with being RG3. And for all the yards he's rolling up on the ground and through the air, he'd prefer the kind of rookie season Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put up eight years ago.
That fall Roethlisberger won his first 13 games as a starter as the Steelers cruised to the NFL's best record, though even Roethlisberger marvels at what he's seen from Griffin.
"How do you not see the highlights?" Roethlisberger said. "He does a great job. He is fast and quick. He does take a lot of shots. He has a big arm and makes plays down the field."
Something the Steelers insist they're ready to do, too.
Pittsburgh finally found its footing on the road last week in a 24-17 win over Cincinnati, out-gaining the Bengals 431-185, though all those yards didn't lead to a blowout.
It fit a familiar pattern for the Steelers, who are averaging just 23.3 points per game despite leading the NFL in time of possession by a whopping margin. Eventually, they believe if they keep pounding away, the breakout game they've been waiting all season for will arrive.
"We're capable of doing that, it's just a matter of putting it together," tight end Heath Miller said.
The Steelers hope to have starting running back Rashard Mendenhall back after he missed last week's game with a right Achilles injury. Third-stringer Jonathan Dwyer filled in against the Bengals and put up a career-high 122 yards. It was a welcome sign for a team that has struggled to run with any kind of consistency.
Yet Pittsburgh's identity remains very closely tied to the defense. While it has looked ordinary at times in road losses to Oakland and Tennessee, there were flashes of dominance against Cincinnati, which managed 105 yards over its final 10 possessions.
And don't think Griffin didn't notice even if the Steelers played without star safety Troy Polamalu, who remains out with a strained right calf.
"Regardless of what other people have said about them, they are still a very good defense," Griffin said. "The numbers prove it. The players on the field prove it."
Particularly when they're a rookie quarterback on the other side on the line of scrimmage.
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