<
>

Big Ben ticks to his own clock

PITTSBURGH -- Stepping up in the pocket, Ben Roethlisberger scrambled to his left -- well, at 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, maybe oozed is a better word -- and temporarily avoided the closing Baltimore Ravens' pass rush.

It was third-and-9 early in the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game and the Steelers quarterback was looking for his favorite target, Hines Ward. But because of a knee injury, Ward was unable to lose his man. Roethlisberger turned toward the right sideline, prepared to throw the ball away, when he spotted Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington eyeing him and not receiver Santonio Holmes. Faking an out move, Holmes cut back in and Roethlisberger, almost before it happened, heaved an awkward-looking parabola to the space Holmes was about to occupy. After Washington fell down, Holmes gathered in the ball and weaved back across the field for a spectacular 65-yard touchdown. In retrospect, Roethlisberger's longest career playoff pass was the game-changer.

Roethlisberger, for the record, was hit hard on seven occasions by the Ravens and sacked four times, but he did not throw an interception in completing 16 of 33 passes for 255 yards.

Last week at the Steelers' facility, Roethlisberger was asked to describe his style of play.

"Reckless," he said. "Controlled. Fearless. Crazy.

"Because I'm not really afraid of taking a hit. I'm not afraid to stand in there and deliver a ball. I'm not afraid to roll out and, if I feel pressure, try to stick the ball into a place where it shouldn't be stuck into."

This might sound ineloquent, but it summarizes Roethlisberger's risk-versus-reward world view. It's ironic Roethlisberger's nickname is Big Ben, because the great clock tower of the Palace at Westminster is a precision timepiece. You know how quarterbacks have that internal clock that tells them when the rush is about to separate them from their senses? Well, Roethlisberger doesn't operate on the NFL's chuck-and-duck Greenwich Mean Time. Actually, he's more of a time bomb. He will do almost anything to make a play. Quite often, this involves a degree of personal pain.

"I've played with quarterbacks who at times, if they sense the pressure, they'll just look for a place to fall down," Pittsburgh center Justin Hartwig said. "Ben isn't that guy."

Here is the yin and yang of this gifted quarterback: Although he has the second-best winning percentage (58-22, .725) among all active quarterbacks, Roethlisberger also has been sacked more times than any other passer since coming into the NFL in 2004. The total is a staggering (literally) 192 sacks. Against the Eagles in Week 3, Roethlisberger went down eight times.

"I take a lot of hits, and people make a big deal about it," Roethlisberger acknowledged. "You know what? I just play the game. I don't do it on purpose. I don't sit there and try to get out of the pocket. I don't sit there and try and hold the ball.

"It's a double-edged sword. You live by it and you die by it."

More often than not, Roethlisberger and the Steelers live quite nicely. Despite nursing a sore shoulder and suffering a concussion against Cleveland in the regular-season finale, he has started all 18 of Pittsburgh's games. For his career, he has missed only nine of 89 starts, a remarkable number for someone who takes so much abuse.

Roethlisberger drew his style of play directly from one of the NFL's greatest-ever improvisational acts: John Elway.

"I remember going out in the street, probably because of him, dropping back to pass and never taking a five-step drop," Roethlisberger explained. "I would do a whirlybird and then run back this way, you know -- 'And he scrambles, and he throws' -- all that stuff.

"To drop back and pass is too boring."

In the AFC title game, Ravens defensive tackle Trevor Pryce learned what many opponents already know about Roethlisberger.

"Don't rush anybody," Pryce said afterward, offering some free advice to the Arizona Cardinals. "If you chase him, he just gets to play sandlot football. That's what he likes. That's when they get you in trouble."

Roethlisberger actually practices breakdown plays. In training camp, he said, he sometimes ignores the call in the huddle for seven-on-seven drills and just starts scrambling.

"I won't tell them," he said. "It gets them used to doing it for when it happens in a game. It's just playing ball."

Not surprisingly, scouts rave about Roethlisberger's strength.

"He can throw it with bodies hanging all over him, from compromising angles," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "His strength allows him to function that way. Now that Mike Tomlin is the coach, you're seeing the risk-taker come out in his personality."

As crazy as it sounds, Roethlisberger could be playing for a spot in Canton on Sunday in Tampa. For context, consider that only one retired quarterback who won two Super Bowls -- the Raiders' Jim Plunkett -- is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Tom Brady, who has won three, presumably will be enshrined five years after he retires.

Roethlisberger already has racked up seven playoff victories, the second-highest total for a quarterback in his first five seasons -- after Brady's nine. Roethlisberger has more total wins than any other quarterback in his first five years (51) and has played in three AFC championships.

In his previous Super Bowl appearance, XL against Seattle, Roethlisberger played poorly, completing only 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards, with two interceptions and no touchdowns.

At 26, just entering the sweet spot for NFL quarterbacks, he believes he will play better.

"My nerves were racing the whole game and never went away," Roethlisberger said. "I think part of that was being young, being in the Super Bowl. This time, you have to channel it and put it away -- like I do for every game."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.