PITTSBURGH Ben Roethlisberger glances quickly from his left to his right, looking for a defender who might break at the last second and disrupt his pass. With no one in sight, he throws a perfect line-drive into his receiver's chest.
Just another day on the job for perhaps the most scrutinized rookie quarterback in NFL history, only this wasn't practice or a game. It was the middle of the Steelers' locker room Wednesday, as Roethlisberger playfully tossed around a plastic football, using TV cameramen as blockers and Jeff Reed yes, a kicker as his primary receiver.
Awfully nervous before his first playoff game, isn't he?
''I think I hide it pretty good,'' Roethlisberger said as he awaits Saturday's postseason debut against the Jets. ''There's a little bit of pressure out there obviously because you lose, you go home. On the other hand I don't want to go out there and have too much pressure and stress on me, because then you never know how I'm going to play.''
No rookie QB has played better than Roethlisberger, whose 13-0 record as a starter is unprecedented. Previously, no rookie had won more than his first six starts, much less one playing on only the fourth team to go 15-1 since the NFL started playing 16-game seasons in 1978.
Roethlisberger's remarkable run has made him the Steelers' most popular player since their four Super Bowl victories in six seasons from 1974-79. His No. 7 jersey is a best seller; his infrequent public appearances trigger mile-long traffic jams.
For all the poise, maturity and skill Roethlisberger has shown during the best regular season in the Steelers' 72-season history, they are asking him to do the seemingly impossible: Win the Super Bowl as a rookie.
After all, no rookie QB has taken his team to football's biggest game, much less won it. Since the NFL merger in 1970, only one true rookie quarterback, the Buccaneers' Shaun King in 1999, won his first playoff start; the other two rookies to win (Dieter Brock, Pat Haden) had experience in other pro leagues.
Yet anything other than Pittsburgh's first Super Bowl championship in 25 years will be an enormous letdown not just for Big Ben, but for coach Bill Cowher, who has eight division titles in 13 seasons but no championship ring, and residents of this Steelers-mad town.
To try to deflect attention from the can-the-rookie-win-the-big-one? angle, Cowher said Roethlisberger's experience means he shouldn't be considered a rookie any longer.
''Oh yeah, but I can't play like one,'' Roethlisberger said, asked if he still feels like a rookie. ''I have to go out there and play like a veteran player to help this team.''
Roethlisberger struggled mightily against the Jets in a 17-6 victory on Dec. 12, throwing for only 24 yards in the first half before finishing 9-of-19 for 144 yards. It didn't help that his top deep threat, Plaxico Burress, sat out with a sore hamstring, allowing the Jets to load the line of scrimmage and take away the run until the Steelers scored 14 points in the fourth quarter.
But as poorly as he played two interceptions and a season-low 33.6 passer rating Roethlisberger still won. No doubt the Jets will try to force him to do it again, with defensive end Shaun Ellis saying, ''You have to stop the run. Everybody knows Pittsburgh loves to run the ball.''
''If we have to throw the ball to win the game, that's what we'll try and do,'' Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger won't have played for nearly three weeks, sitting out Jan. 2 in Buffalo with sore rib cartilage he says is fine now. The layoff doesn't worry him.
''My body feels better right now than it has in a long time,'' he said. ''I think the time off has helped this team a lot.''
And the player who insisted all season he couldn't afford to spend time reflecting on what he's done finally let his guard down a little, acknowledging he's on the ride of a lifetime that he doesn't want to see end.
Roethlisberger said he was supposed to crash into the so-called rookie wall a while ago, and he hasn't yet.
''I'm enjoying the heck out of this. I'm having fun, winning football games is always fun, as long as we can keep doing it, and see how far we can go, we'll keep having fun.''
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