PITTSBURGH (AP) - Ben Roethlisberger running around, extending plays, throwing touchdowns. Hines Ward dancing in the end zone, not on the ballroom floor. Troy Polamalu picking off a pass. James Harrison wreaking havoc in the backfield.
Does the calendar say August or December? For a couple of dazzling quarters on Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers made it hard to tell the difference.
Roethlisberger threw for 125 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Pittsburgh's defense put an exclamation point to Philadelphia star Michael Vick's miserable day, intercepting three of his passes in the first half of a remarkably easy 24-14 victory.
Yes, it's only the preseason. But after sleepwalking through a loss to Washington a week ago, the defending AFC champions delivered a reminder to their cross-state rivals about which team from Pennsylvania has played in three of the last six Super Bowls.
``That's the desired response we were looking for,' said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin.
Particularly from a defense energized by the return of All Pros Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. The veterans sat last week to rest up and watched as the lowly Redskins moved the ball with ease.
Philadelphia found the going significantly more difficult.
Harrison teamed with Donovan Warren for a sack while Polamalu played with his usual reckless abandon, including a 36-yard free wheeling return of an interception that ended with Vick drilling the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the knees.
Polamalu brushed off Vick's hit, saying he's hit opponents the same way plenty of times.
``I was just playing ball just like he was playing ball,' Polamalu said.
Even if Vick hardly played like his usual self on a night in which he finished with more tackles than touchdowns. He completed just 5 of 12 passes for 47 yards and showed little of the sharpness that's drawn praise from coach Andy Reid during training camp.
It was a frustrating end to a frustrating day for the 2010 NFL Comeback Player of the Year. He spent the morning clarifying comments he made in a ``GQ' article in which he suggested NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell convinced him to sign with the Eagles as a backup two years ago rather than compete for a starting job elsewhere.
Vick stressed it was his decision to sign with Philadelphia and refused to blame the mini-furor surrounding the story for his lackluster performance.
``Once I was in the game, the issue was just pressing to put points on the board,' Vick said. ``I just got caught up in getting down 14-0.'
Then again, Vick got little help on either side of the ball.
Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson, playing for the first time this preseason after ending his contract holdout, had two catches for eight yards as the Eagles struggled to gain any momentum.
``We're all in this together and we all stunk tonight,' Reid said.
Particularly in the first half as Pittsburgh's starters - and more than a few reserves - outplayed Philadelphia's first-stringers.
Pittsburgh outgained Philadelphia 262-71 in the opening 30 minutes, taking some of the sizzle out of one of the league's most hyped teams.
``We just have to go back to the drawing board,' said Philadelphia defensive lineman Trent Cole. ``That's why they call it the preseason. We're going to get back together. We still have a great team, I don't care what anybody says.'
Philadelphia made such a splash during the free agency period - signing Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive linemen Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins and quarterback Vince Young among others - that Young dubbed his new squad ``The Dream Team.'
The Steelers did little to downplay the hype surrounding the Eagles, with safety Ryan Clark saying he's only too happy to let Philadelphia ``deal with the limelight.'
The Eagles looked uncomfortable under the glare while playing in front of a national TV audience against a team still smarting from a loss to Green Bay in the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh had no such issues. Roethlisberger led two long touchdown drives, hitting Antonio Brown on a 29-yard score in the first quarter and finding Ward in the back of the end zone in the second.
``We found ways to make plays and guys found ways to get open,' Roethlisberger said. ``I found a way to get them the ball.'
And keep Philadelphia's defense on the field.
Pittsburgh converted 7 of 10 third downs in the opening half and punted only once as Roethlisberger easily made plays against Philadelphia's revamped secondary.
The addition of Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was supposed to shore up the Eagles' suspect pass defense, yet the secondary consistently ran into trouble.
Brown torched Asante Samuel on a double-move on the first touchdown, and Ward ended a 96-yard drive with a 20-yard scoring grab after Roethlisberger extended the play by breaking containment.
Ward, who won ``Dancing With the Stars' during the offseason, celebrated with a couple of well-executed Samba.
``All the guys have been ragging on me all season about doing something,' Ward said.
While Ward, Roethlisberger and running back Rashard Mendenhall were in baseball caps by the second quarter, Vick played the entire half.
The Steelers responded by keeping most of the starting defense on the field. Vick could do little with his arm or his legs even though Pittsburgh was forced to use a patchwork secondary thanks to injuries to corners Ike Taylor (broken left thumb) and Bryant McFadden (hamstring).
Usual nickelback William Gay and reserve Keenan Lewis started in place of the two veterans and held Jackson and others in check. Gay blanketed the speedy wideout when Vick tried to hit Jackson with a deep ball on Philadelphia's first play from scrimmage, and Lewis easily picked off Vick when the quarterback overthrew Riley Cooper down the sideline.
The Steelers weren't done. Polamalu, slowed in the playoffs last year with an Achilles' injury, appeared to be fine playing at full speed for the first time in more than six months.
Even if he knows he may have gotten carried away during his interception return. He weaved his way into Philadelphia territory and at one point faked a pitch during the return. He held onto the ball and paid the price when Vick nailed him.
Tomlin glared at his star safety when Polamalu jogged off the field. If he finds himself with the ball in his hands again before the games start for real, don't expect him to hang onto it.
``I was running out of gas,' he said.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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