Big Ben welcomes the pressure

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On that glorious March day when Ben Roethlisberger signed his $102 million contract, he joked about the silly, unrealistic expectations on Steelers quarterbacks. "In this town, there is always pressure to play well."

Never more, though, than there will be on Big Ben Sunday in Baltimore.

The Rooneys gave him the Monopoly money to win this kind of game, one that would give the Steelers the AFC North Division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Roethlisberger won't have to do it alone, of course. The Steelers will put a pretty good defense on the M&T Bank Stadium turf, the best defense in the NFL. But Roethlisberger and his offense, which has struggled at times and been flat-out awful at others, have to be at their best against the league's second-ranked defense for the Steelers to have a real chance. As he put it, "We have to be who we are ... but we have to be really good."

Ordinarily, you would think the Steelers have a huge edge at quarterback. The Ravens' Joe Flacco is a rookie. Roethlisberger's body of work is a bit more extensive: He became the first quarterback to go 13-0 in 2004, became the youngest to win a Super Bowl in '05 and has more wins in his first five seasons (49) than any quarterback in league history.

But Flacco often has outplayed Roethlisberger this season. In the Ravens' past eight games -- seven victories -- Flacco threw for 12 touchdowns and three interceptions and had a 95.6 passer rating. Roethlisberger's numbers during that same period: seven touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 72.3 rating.

I remember writing in September that Roethlisberger was ready to step up as the NFL's best quarterback after Tom Brady's knee injury. Clearly, he hasn't played to that level, partly due to his inconsistency, partly because of a bad shoulder and partly due to the strong defenses the Steelers have played, some rotten weather conditions and significant injuries to running back Willie Parker, guard Kendall Simmons and tackle Marvel Smith. But I'm still thinking the Steelers are pretty lucky to have Roethlisberger for the game Sunday.

"When it means the most, I want to be the one the guys look to and count on," Roethlisberger said after practice yesterday. "I want the ball in my hands.

"Like the other day [against Dallas]. I'm not complaining about [cornerback Deshea Townsend's winning] interception. But I was really hoping we'd get the ball back. I wanted to have the chance to win the game."

All of the great ones are like that.

They share another trait, too: You can't count 'em out even on their worst days.

Roethlisberger was pretty bad for three quarters Sunday against the Cowboys, and the Steelers trailed, 13-3. Then, he led a long drive for the tying touchdown to put Townsend in position to win the game. The same thing happened the first time the Steelers played Baltimore Sept. 29. Off for 2 1/2 quarters and with the team down, 13-3, Roethlisberger threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes. The Steelers went on to win in overtime.

"It's no secret that we've struggled as an offense a little bit," Roethlisberger said. "But I'm proud that we've found ways to put points on the board when we had to."

Doing it Sunday won't be easy. Not against that defense. Not in that stadium.

"It's so loud and crazy there," Roethlisberger said. "Their defense gets excited there. If you look at them, it's amazing, they're such a different team when they play at home.

"That's probably the place I hate to play at the most."

Roethlisberger has no good memories from Baltimore. The Steelers are 0-4 there during his era, although he has played just 1 1/2 games there. He sat out last season to get ready for the playoffs and missed the '05 game because of a knee injury.

Roethlisberger made his NFL debut in Baltimore early in the '04 season after starter Tommy Maddox went down with a serious elbow injury. His first pass was incomplete, his second intercepted. "I remember being scared to death," he said.

It's surprising Roethlisberger remembers anything about the '06 game. He was sacked a career-high nine times, including one brutal, but clean, hit from linebacker Bart Scott. "Oh, yeah," Roethlisberger said when asked if that's the hardest he has been hit. "I remember seeing my feet go up in the air. Then, I remember not being able to breathe."

It's nice to think the memories will be better Sunday.

The Steelers will try to run the ball. No, not because Parker said they need to get back to "Steelers football."

The Steelers will try to run because they think a balanced offense is their best hope. The problem is that the Ravens' defense is so stout. Only the New York Giants were able to run on it.

Sooner or later, the game is going to come down to Roethlisberger.

I'm fine with that.

More important, he's fine with it.

When it means the most, I want to be the one the guys look to and count on ...

Ron Cook can be reached at .


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