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Steelers don't seem concerned - yet - about Big Ben's minislump

The big plays don't come as regularly, and neither do the deep pass completions. He has led only two touchdown drives and was sacked 11 times the last two weeks even while facing losing-record opponents.

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The big plays don't come as regularly, and neither do the deep pass completions. He has led only two touchdown drives and was sacked 11 times the last two weeks even while facing losing-record opponents.

No wonder the Pittsburgh Steelers must be asking: Has Big Ben's rookie season hit a big wall?

Ben Roethlisberger is unbeaten in nine starts, but he is learning that being an NFL quarterback isn't as easy as he made it look for weeks.

Coach Bill Cowher isn't jumping off the Big Ben bandwagon, but with the Steelers' offense increasingly reliant on the running game as the playoffs approach, he is nudging Roethlisberger to step up his play.

We've been very sporadic throwing the football,'' Cowher said.We have to rectify the sacks _ we've had too many negative yards ... too many third-and-longs and having to overcome second-and-15s. We have to do a better job of throwing the football.''

Cowher isn't singularly blaming his quarterback for a dropoff that has seen Roethlisberger go from throwing for 803 yards and eight touchdowns in four games to 401 yards and one touchdown in three games.

Wide receiver Plaxico Burress has missed most of two games with a sore hamstring, allowing defenses to double up on Hines Ward, who has only 11 catches in four games. And an offensive line that played flawlessly for weeks has increasingly allowed pressure on Roethlisberger before he can set up in the pocket.

Ben's done a great job of leading us to be 10-1 ... but, yes, we do have to improve as a group in our passing game,'' said Ward, who has 60 catches after averaging 100 each of the last three seasons.It's a little bit of everything: timing, protection. We're not getting as many attempts, so every passing attempt you do get is magnified.''

To prevent the sacks from growing into a bigger problem, Roethlisberger said, ``I have to get the ball out of there quicker,'' even though, by doing so, he likely increases the chances for interceptions.

His teammates don't see any sign Roethlisberger is feeling the pressure of leading one of the NFL's three 10-1 teams. He hasn't rushed to capitalize on his instant fame by making a lot of commercials or public appearances, and running back Jerome Bettis said he is noticeably looser.

He came into the huddle (Sunday against Washington) singing a song, laughing,'' Bettis said.You see a different guy. The first game, he was trying to figure out what was going on, trying to get a grip on the game.''

The Steelers face a challenging closing stretch against the Jaguars (6-5), Jets (8-3), Giants (5-6), Ravens (7-4) and Bills (5-6) that probably will require Roethlisberger to throw more. For weeks now, the Steelers have routinely opened up early double-digit leads that allowed Roethlisberger to throttle down the offense and mostly hand off to Jerome Bettis or Duce Staley.

Roethlisberger also has benefited from a favorable schedule; Sunday night's game at Jacksonville will be the first he's started on the road against a winning team.

I'm not trying to be a superstar out there in this offense,'' Roethlisberger said.The big thing is to keep winning.''

Roethlisberger knew the scrutiny would increase as the playoffs approached, and even the NFL has begun finding fault with its newest star.

He was told this week to no longer paint a small 40'' (for Pat Tillman) andPFJ'' (for ``Play For Jesus'') on his shoes to avoid violating the league's uniform code. He was told previously to stop wearing a yellow Lance Armstrong LiveStrong wrist band.

It (the attention) comes with the territory of playing quarterback, and if you aren't ready for that, you can't play the position,'' he said.You really have to focus and know what is important.''

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