Big Ben shoulders load of passing

Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for 436 yards in two playoff games this season. Jerry Lai/US Presswire

Joe Flacco's struggles in the Ravens' AFC Championship Game loss to the Steelers conjured up images of Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season in 2004. That flashback also illustrates how much Roethlisberger has grown as a quarterback.

Roethlisberger had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever in 2004, leading the Steelers to a 15-1 regular-season record and the AFC title game. But there is only so much a rookie quarterback can do. Roethlisberger struggled and the Steelers lost that game against New England. In a similar scenario, Flacco went 13-for-30 and threw three interceptions in the Ravens' 23-14 loss to the Steelers.

In Year 5 of his development, Roethlisberger's ability to carry a team is reflected in games he was asked to throw 30 or more passes. In his first three seasons, Roethlisberger was 3-8 in games in which he threw at least 30 times. In 2007, Roethlisberger carried more of the load, but went 3-5 in 30-plus passing games.

Including the playoffs, Roethlisberger is 7-2 this season in games in which he has thrown 30 or more times. Because of an inconsistent running game and the desire of Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to try more no-huddle and shotgun plays, Big Ben averaged 29 passes a game in 2008.

NFL coaches say it usually takes five years for a quarterback to fully develop. At 26, Roethlisberger may not have fully arrived as a complete quarterback, but he's certainly stepped on the welcome mat and is knocking at the door.

The ability to succeed when asked to throw 30 or more passes gives an offense the chance to survive when the running game is taken away. Steelers halfback Willie Parker battled injuries all season and finished with only 791 yards, his lowest total in five years. Pittsburgh's offensive line, which lost standout guard Alan Faneca to the Jets last offseason, often struggled.

The Steelers used to win games with their running game and a great defense, but this year's AFC champion needed more out of its defense and more out of Roethlisberger.

"Ben's 6-5 with tremendous arm strength," wide receiver Santonio Holmes said. "He's got great strength and athletic ability and he can escape when guys are trying to tackle him. As receivers, we always know we have to stay alive on every play. That's why we won the Super Bowl in 2005. We won with Roethlisberger's playmaking ability. When the pocket breaks down, Ben is capable of throwing the ball and making a big play."

Down the stretch, Roethlisberger has been throwing a little more, but also connecting on more big plays each game with Holmes.

"We probably have a better understanding for each other," Holmes said. "We've been spending extra time working after practice. If I make a mistake, Ben's staying patient with me. If he overthrows me, I'm still out there trying to chase down the ball."

Thanks to the confidence that is growing between Roethlisberger and Holmes, the Steelers' passing offense is going deeper during the postseason. In two playoff games, Roethlisberger has attempted 14 passes in which the ball traveled 20 or more yards in the air. Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner has six passes that sailed 20 or more yards in three playoff games.

In many ways, the Steelers' offense is wrestling with its personality. It often minimized running attempts and went to the passing offense earlier. Starting in October, when Parker's injuries started to keep him out of games, Roethlisberger started to get more 30-pass games. Roethlisberger is especially successful in the third quarter, compiling a 100.8 passer rating with 66 completions in 108 attempts for 860 yards and six touchdowns.

In Pittsburgh's two playoff games, it has been interesting to watch the Steelers' offense, which has tried to stay more committed to the run. Parker had 146 yards on 27 carries in the Steelers' AFC divisional-round victory over the Chargers. They tried to run the ball against the Ravens, but failed. Parker had 14 first-down runs for 32 yards, setting up a lot of second-and-longs and forcing Roethlisberger to make more plays. The Steelers quarterback responded.

"We kept running on first down trying to pop something,'' Parker said. "We tried all night, but it didn't happen. But it's a great sign that we tried. We knew we were going to try to run the ball from the start."

But if the Cardinals take away the Steelers' ground game, Roethlisberger can make an adjustment and take control. He's continuing to evolve.

Only Tom Brady (nine) has won more playoff games than Roethlisberger (seven) during the first five years of his career. In Super Bowl XLIII, it could all come down to Big Ben.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.