PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger has seen this show before. Rookie quarterback. Physical running back. Solid defense. A historic hot streak that seems like a portent.
Back in 2004 it was Roethlisberger who was the hot rookie, pairing with Jerome Bettis and the NFL’s top-ranked defense to rip off 13 straight wins after replacing injured Tommy Maddox while leading the Steelers to the AFC title game. Now it’s Dak Prescott, the 23-year-old with the preternatural calm who has rapidly evolved from fourth-round flyer to perhaps indispensable part of the team that reached midseason atop the NFC.
There is one big difference. While Roethlisberger was asked to serve primarily as a game manager and let the defense do the work — he only passed for more than 200 yards three times as a rookie — Prescott has been asked to do more. In some ways, a lot more. He’s on pace to go over 4,000 yards passing and has made Tony Romo, who happens to be the franchise’s all-time passing leader, a $20 million backup .
“He’s not just managing games, he’s taking games over and doing some pretty awesome stuff,” Roethlisberger said of Prescott. “It’s fun to watch.”
If not exactly fun to play against. The Cowboys (7-1) have ripped off seven straight wins, the third-longest run by a rookie quarterback in league history, even if there’s a ways to go to reach what Roethlisberger did in 2004. The combination of Prescott, rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Dez Bryant has quickly become just as dynamic as Pittsburgh’s trio of Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
While Dallas is surging, the Steelers (4-4) are slumping . Their three-game losing streak includes a lifeless performance in Baltimore last weekend that dropped them out of first in the AFC North. There’s time to get it together. They did it last year, going 6-2 over the second half to earn a playoff berth. The first step this time will be more difficult than most.
“You want to be playing your best football at this time of year,” Roethlisberger said. “If we want to be playing our best, we’ve got to be playing the best. And one of the best is coming in this week.”
LEE’S HOMECOMING: Linebacker Sean Lee, Dallas’ leading tackler, grew up about 20 minutes from Heinz Field and was a lifelong Steelers fan before going to Penn State. He’s facing Pittsburgh for the first time because he was hurt the only other time they played, in 2012. Lee was a second-round pick by the Cowboys in 2010. His dad told him stories of the rivalry in the 1970s, when Pittsburgh beat Dallas in the Super Bowl twice. And he vaguely remembers the Cowboys beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl after the 1995 season.
“I think I cried afterward, but I shouldn’t have because I don’t remember exactly watching play to play,” said Lee, who was in third grade. “I think I was playing video games half the game.”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Despite their slide, the Steelers are a favored by a field goal, a testament to the way they handle their business at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger has won seven straight home starts, and Pittsburgh is averaging 35 points in those games.
“We know the potential we have,” Bell said. “We’ve got to start living up to it week in and week out, home or on the road.”
UP-AND-DOWN DEZ: Star Dallas receiver Dez Bryant has two 100-yard games out of the five he has played. He missed three with a knee injury. But he also has two one-catch games, including last week against Cleveland. In both of those one-catch games tight end Jason Witten and slot receiver Cole Beasley dominated. They combined for 17 catches on 26 targets in the opener against the Giants, and 16 targets for 14 catches against the Browns. Witten had his first 100-yard game in three years last week. Beasley leads Dallas receivers across the board: catches (43), yards (499) and touchdowns (four).
STOPPING KIDS: There was a time not long ago when Pittsburgh had little trouble against teams with rookie starting quarterbacks. The Steelers went 18-2 against rookies from 2004-15. That ended emphatically in Week 3 when they went to Philadelphia and let Carson Wentz lead the Eagles to a 34-3 whipping. Like Wentz, Prescott has shown an uncanny ability to avoid mistakes. He’s thrown two interceptions so far against 12 touchdowns.
“Usually, rookie quarterbacks don’t play that great,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “That guy in Philadelphia (Carson Wentz) played great and has been playing great. And this guy in Dallas (Prescott) is playing great. But usually, globally speaking, it may not have anything to do with us. It just may mean that rookie quarterbacks don’t play great. And usually, they’re playing because of less-than-ideal circumstance.”