Roethlisberger the unquestioned leader

His All-Pro guard saw it at training camp. His record-setting receiver sees it in the huddle. His offensive coordinator sees it on the film every Monday. And his head coach made it official: Ben Roethlisberger is the stone-cold leader of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger was asked by a reporter Wednesday why he's grown a beard this season.

"Because it's cold in Pittsburgh," Roethlisberger said. "I learned from my rookie year."

That's not all he's learned. Bill Cowher made the obvious official Tuesday afternoon when he said that Roethlisberger is the leader of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and "there's no question about it."

Alan Faneca questioned aloud last year how the team would cope with a rookie quarterback. He saw the transformation in Roethlisberger from rookie to veteran early at this year's training camp.

"He started to assume a bigger role in the offense by understanding things better and communicating between plays with guys about what you saw, what he saw and you just kind of saw the growth of him as a quarterback," Faneca said. "I think that's where the process started. You can't really become a leader if you're still finding things out, which every rookie is."

Roethlisberger went 13-0 while "finding things out" last season. In training camp this year he warned that the record might not be as good, although the team and the quarterback would be better.

The prophesy has come true. Roethlisberger is 8-3 as a starter but his passer rating has improved from 98.1 to 103.4; his average yards per completion has improved from 13.4 to 14.0; his touchdown percentage has improved from 5.8 to 6.7; and his interception percentage has decreased from 3.7 to 2.8.

He set a rookie record for passer rating last year, and is now running neck and neck with Peyton Manning for the NFL lead going into the final game of the season.

"I feel a lot more comfortable," Roethlisberger said. "I'm understanding things on offense; I'm understanding the defense a little bit better. I know who's going in motion most of the time now when I send them. (There are) just little things here and there that I really feel a lot more comfortable with."

He still doesn't audible much.

"We don't do a lot of audibling; we do a lot of checking," said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "We do some checking where he'll change from one play to another or we'll package some plays, and he does some of that, but we didn't do a lot of that last year and that's an extra burden that he'll get to do more of as he becomes more comfortable with the offense."

Meanwhile, the team is obviously becoming more comfortable with him. The Steelers lead the NFL in yards per completion and are second in yards per attempt. Roethlisberger is first in yards per attempt (8.93) and touchdown percentage as the offense takes quantum strides each week.

"We've put more read-oriented routes in there," Whisenhunt said. "There are a lot more things we can do, especially on third down and in the red zone because he's seeing the field so much better and he knows where to go with the ball. Some of the throws and some of the plays we made in the Cleveland game and the Chicago game were definitely an improvement over – for him as a quarterback and as a leader – where they were last year."

Wide receiver Hines Ward is impressed that Roethlisberger became a leader by degrees.

"You've got to earn your stripes before you go in there and say you're the leader," Ward said. "But he's earned it: We've had to come from behind and he's done that; we had to get in a shootout and he's done that. I think it took a lot of veteran guys on this team to help mold him. He didn't have to go out there and put it all on his back because we had guys around him. We knew it was his team but he's got to be the general and when guys are down he's got to be the guy to get them back up, and he's done an excellent job of that."

Any examples?

"He's just done a great job of handling adversity, calming guys down, making little jokes in the huddle. That's just the way he is."

Roethlisberger was asked yesterday about who he feels is the team MVP. He said Willie Parker.

If Whisenhunt had a vote, it would be Roethlisberger, who's directed an offense that's averaged 28 points the last four games.

"It's exciting," Whisenhunt said. "But still, we've just shown the tip of what we can do. A lot of it is because of (number) seven and how he's grown, and if he keeps growing we can fulfill that potential. And it's happening at the right time, so it really is exciting."

NOTES – Jerome Bettis said he won't decide on retirement until after the season, but expects that Sunday will be his last home game. … Joey Porter was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Cleveland Browns. … LB James Harrison (illness/probable) and DE Travis Kirschke (groin/questionable) missed Wednesday's practice.

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