Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- According to Santonio Holmes, the Steelers are similar to a large black-and-gold locomotive seeking Miami as its final destination.
And the lead car of that train is Ben Roethlisberger.
"He’s the front man," Holmes said of his quarterback. "If he derails, the rest of the team is probably going to fall back."
As the Steelers and Tennessee Titans kick off the 2009 season Thursday night at Heinz Field, Roethlisberger once again is nowhere near the top of the MVP conversation. But similar to perennial candidates Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, “Big Ben” is just as important to his team.
Though a team consists of 53 players, the Steelers cannot -- and will not -- reach their ultimate goal of repeating as Super Bowl champions without a healthy No. 7. Roethlisberger’s numbers rarely stand out, but his 59-22 career record as a starter (including the playoffs) is further proof of what he means to the Steelers.
"He’s definitely the most important [player] to our team," Pittsburgh tailback Willie Parker said. "He’s the centerpiece, and he’s the leader to our offense. He rallies the troops and always gets us ready to play. And he plays with tremendous heart, and that’s what a lot of people overlook."
Every year Roethlisberger is overlooked, and he effortlessly deflects questions about it with the same technique he swats would-be defenders in his latest television commercial.
"I picked them too," said Roethlisberger, when asked why the Patriots and San Diego Chargers are considered Super Bowl favorites.
Another reporter could barely finish a quarterback question before Roethlisberger interjected:
"Tom Brady," he said. " … or Drew Brees."
Is Roethlisberger worthy of a first-round fantasy pick?
"Nope," Roethlisberger said smiling. "I’m a sleeper this year."
You get the sense that somewhere deep within, Roethlisberger has a mental reserve where he keeps all of these nuggets as motivation. How else can you explain his instant success, from a quarterback at a mid-major college program to one of the NFL's winningest players in just five seasons?
But for as much credit as Brady gets for his three Super Bowl rings, no one seems to give Roethlisberger the same acclaim for being one behind the New England Patriots’ star quarterback. In fact, Roethlisberger, who was 26 last February, won his second Super Bowl at the same age Brady did.
"You look at the Bradys and the Peytons, and they’re huge with precision-routes, timing-routes and that type of stuff," Steelers left tackle Max Starks said. "But when Ben plays the game, sometimes it looks crazy with him moving all around the pocket. Some guys move defenders with their eyes or with formations. Ben moves them with his feet. He’s just a special quarterback."
This week Roethlisberger said that quarterback is the hardest position to play in the NFL, mostly because of the pressures that come with it.
"I think it starts with the scrutiny from everybody," said Roethlisberger, who's also facing off-the-field issues after being hit with a civil sexual assault suit in Nevada this summer. "Everyone is always watching what you do, and it can be tough and it can wear on you."
When disaster struck Brady and New England in Week 1 last year, the Patriots’ preseason status as Super Bowl favorite went down the tubes. To their credit, the Patriots won 11 games, but it wasn't enough to make the playoffs in a deep and competitive AFC.
Would the same happen to Pittsburgh if Roethlisberger got hurt?
Although there’s no clear-cut preseason favorite, Pittsburgh is one of a handful of elite teams being picked to advance to Miami and Super Bowl XLIV. The Steelers also are the top team in ESPN.com’s Week 1 power rankings.
If Roethlisberger goes down, Pittsburgh’s backup plan is Charlie Batch. The 12-year veteran has been a solid No. 2 quarterback and a proven short-term option.
Batch has 50 career starts and is 3-1 as a starter in Pittsburgh relieving Roethlisberger. Batch set a perfect example in 2005, when he won two important regular-season games before Pittsburgh’s run to Super Bowl XL.
"We have a savvy vet in Charlie who’s willing and ready to step in at any time and take control if Ben goes down," Holmes said. "But with [Roethlisberger] out, you would have to take a step back and gather everybody together and say, 'It’s a different head of the train now.' "
For Pittsburgh to avoid a catastrophe at quarterback, the team must improve its pass protection. The Steelers have allowed 139 sacks of Roethlisberger in the past three seasons.
Roethlisberger has the tendency to hold the football, adding to some of the sack totals. But the offensive line certainly is not without blame. Roethlisberger had a lot of injury scares and was banged up numerous times in the past three years but missed only two of 52 starts in that span, including the playoffs.
Last year alone Roethlisberger overcame hand, shoulder, spine and rib injuries to make all 19 starts and lead Pittsburgh to his second Super Bowl, which included a memorable, game-winning drive in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals.
"There’s a reason why he’s the franchise and you want to keep him safe," Starks said. "The guy can make things happen that a lot of people can only dream of. His fourth-quarter, big-play ability is ridiculous."
Before they have any thoughts of repeating, the Steelers will first have to get past the Titans, who had the NFL’s best record (13-3) last season.
Of those 13 victories, one was an impressive, 31-14 win over Pittsburgh in December. It was a game in which the Titans forced four Roethlisberger turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles) and handed the Steelers their final loss before Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XLIII.
"It’s going to be a challenge for us and what better way to start the year," Roethlisberger said. "They forced turnovers and that’s on me. Anytime you turn the ball over that many times, it’s not good."
With a healthy quarterback, the Steelers have a legitimate chance to win their third Super Bowl title in five years. It also would cement Pittsburgh’s status as an NFL dynasty and perhaps the mythical title of "Team of the Decade."
"It would mean a whole lot," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said of winning a third ring. "This is a team that has a lot of history. Those teams back in the 1970s winning four [championships], that was a big deal. But it’s a long road."
Pittsburgh’s potentially historic journey begins tonight.