Escaping the pocket, evading a would-be tackler, hitting a receiver in stride just as he is about to be hit, scrambling for scores and tossing touchdowns on the move -- as difficult as this might sound, such plays come easily to Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers knew they were getting a special athlete when they took him with the 11th pick in the draft.
But as they also well know in Pittsburgh, there is a marked difference between a quarterback with athletic ability and an athlete playing quarterback. When starter Tommy Maddox hurt his right (throwing) elbow against the Ravens in Week 2, Pittsburgh's grand plan to bring Roethlisberger along slowly went out the window. But the season hasn't gone down the tubes for the Steelers, winners of four straight and, at 4-1, the AFC North leaders, because, with each week, Big Ben is showing himself to be closer to the former.
The Roethlisberger highlights, and there was plenty of tape for the late-night shows to choose from in Sunday's 34-23 win over the rival Browns, in which he completed 16 of 21 attempts for 231 yards, usually featured the 6-foot-5-inch, 241-pound rook runnin' and gunnin'. But the plays that had him and his quarterback coach excited in the film room the next day had to do with boring stuff like Roethlisberger making the proper read, progressing through his options, and staying put in the pocket when his instinct might be to bail. You know, the sort of stuff that makes for a long, successful career as a pro quarterback.
In his first game, when he came on in relief against the Ravens a month ago, Roethlisberger looked, "awful, like a guy who hadn't taken any snaps that week," according to a fellow quarterback who viewed the film. That's because he didn't. Roethlisberger hurt his right knee the Wednesday before the game and got very little work leading up to it. In the 30-13 loss, Big Ben threw two touchdowns but offset them with two picks, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
In that game, and to a lesser extent the following week at Miami, he did what young quarterbacks tend to: locked on to his primary receiver. In the two games since, victories over Cincinnati and Cleveland, Roethlisberger, quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple says, is doing a better job of moving defenders with his eyes. That and a growing command of the offense are major reasons why in four games Roethlisberger, who would be a senior at Miami (Ohio), has completed nearly 65 percent of his throws (57 of 88) for 744 yards and five touchdowns against four interceptions, good for a passer rating of 91.3, sixth best in the AFC.
"You have to (look off receivers) in this league," Roethlisberger, who admitted he was still a bit sore from some of the shots he took from the Browns, said the day after his third win in as many starts, only the sixth rookie quarterback to do so since the NFL/AFL merger. "I'm starting to realize that more and more. These guys are professional athletes on defense, they're great players, so you have to be able to look a guy off and come back the other way and trust that your receivers are going to be open. And it's easy to trust your receivers when you have great receivers like I have."
His best receiver is Hines Ward. There's a play in the Steelers' playbook designed to go to Ward on an option route, and if it's covered, the quarterback is supposed to look to slot receiver Antwaan Randle El up the seam. Against Miami, Roethlisberger forced it to Ward. He completed it, but it wasn't the right decision.
Early in Sunday's game, the 23-year-old showed his maturation by reading double coverage on Ward and throwing to Randle El instead.
"We talk about reads against the defense so much and understanding what we want to do," Whipple said, "but now he's beginning to understand what we want to do as well as what the defense is going to do."
The game isn't too big for Big Ben, the third quarterback chosen behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in the first round of this year's draft. Witness the way he managed a two-minute drill near the end of the first half Sunday that led to a Jeff Reed field goal. On the drive Roethlisberger converted three third downs. One of them was a short dump off to Randle El, the result of patience on the part of the rookie.
"I was really happy with the poise of just staying in the pocket," he said, "and you have to give credit to the line for holding guys out. They've been doing a great job."
Long before Maddox's injury, Charlie Batch going down early in the preseason meant Roethlisberger was the No. 2, and looking back, Whipple says, the extra practice during training camp is what prepared the rookie to step in with no major slip-ups.
"I doubt that Ben would have come along as well if that didn't happen," Whipple said.
The Steelers are still bringing Roethlisberger along with an eye toward the future. They've scaled the offense back a bit, yes, and emphasized the run more with him at the helm, but they're working with a full game plan and adding things each week.
"We're trying to develop him for the long haul," Whipple said.
Maddox isn't likely to get his starting job back when he returns from injury, yet he's been a mentor and an extra set of eyes for Roethlisberger. For his part, Roethlisberger is spending more time at work and taking it home with him, going over his playbook over the phone with his coaches.
"My work days have definitely gotten a lot longer," he said. "I'm definitely putting in that extra work because I don't want to let my teammates down. I want to be the best I can be so we can win football games.
"Every game I try to get a little bit better and we try to get better together."
Big Ben still has major work to do, particularly on his footwork. Because of his natural ability, he's able to turn a mistake into a good play. Said Whipple, "He knows he's going to get better. Most important, he wants to get better."
Things get tougher for Roethlisberger in the coming weeks: The Steelers visit the Cowboys on Sunday, followed by a bye, then have home tilts against the Patriots and Eagles. Those playing devil's advocate say Roethlisberger and the Steelers are the beneficiaries of a favorable schedule.
For Big Ben, it's a lot like he's still in college. He's once again the big man on campus. But, to his credit, he doesn't seem to have an ego to match.
"The ultimate goal for me is to win a Super Bowl, and I'm not going to be satisfied until that happens," he said. "Just because you won a couple of football games doesn't mean anything to me."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com