Draft-Class Game

Rivers, Roethlisberger 2008 (Vishvanat/Getty)

Ben Roethlisberger hopes to make his return a triumphant one today against the struggling Philip Rivers and his San Diego Chargers.

Jerricho Cotchery knows Philip Rivers a bit.

OK, better than a bit.

Cotchery knows him so well that his high school basketball coach had him follow Rivers all over the court during a playoff game.

"The game before he had like 43 points, and so next game coach said, ‘You've got him,'" said Cotchery, a graduate of Phillips High in Birmingham, Ala.

"So from the point he took the ball out, I was following him. I followed him everywhere, even to the bench."

And?

"And he ended up with about eight points and we won."

Rivers got his revenge the next fall in the Alabama high school football playoffs, and then Rivers and Cotchery both went off to North Carolina State to become the greatest pass-catch combo in school history.

Cotchery – like so many draft watchers at the time – thought Rivers was headed to the Steelers in 2004 "because of (Bill) Cowher and because they needed a quarterback."

Cowher, an N.C. State alumnus, appeared at the N.C. State Pro Day, but Rivers flew up to the fourth pick of the draft. Ben Roethlisberger, of course, ended up with the Steelers, who picked 11th.

"Yeah, another draft-class guy," Roethlisberger said of today's game at Heinz Field. "It could be fun."

Sixteen quarterbacks were drafted in 2004, and all 16 made NFL rosters. But only Rivers (1-3), Eli Manning (1-2), J.P. Losman (0-1) and Matt Schaub (1-1) have started games against Roethlisberger, who is 7-3 against the group.

Roethlisberger, of course, has been cleared to start today against the 4-8 Chargers, who have lost four consecutive games and seven of their last eight.

Part of the Chargers' problem is an offensive line that was bad even before losing three starters in last week's loss to Cincinnati.

While Rivers is second in the league in passing yardage (20,566), he's been sacked 36 times, three off the NFL high (Aaron Rodgers) and two off his career high.

Coming into the season, Rivers had been sacked once every 18.8 dropbacks, but this season he's been sacked every 12.8.

It's nearly the opposite of Roethlisberger's numbers, who entered this year sacked once every 11.6 dropbacks, but had been sacked once every 18.6 this season before the Kansas City Chiefs injured Roethlisberger's S-C joint with a double-barreled coverage sack that knocked him out of the last 3½ games.

Roethlisberger's returning this week after showing the Steelers' coaching staff that he can make all the necessary movements and throws, but it'll behoove Roethlisberger to release the ball quickly, a point of emphasis all season under new coordinator Todd Haley.

"That will give us and him the best chance to succeed," said Haley. "That's why we were doing it. The fact that he had a bunch of games under his belt, and it's obvious he was getting more comfortable with how we were trying to do things, and try to limit "'Ben being Ben' plays, although they are still there and necessary. I am grateful he has that ability. In certain situations and times you need it.

"I think he is going to get back on track. He needs to get out there, first of all, then get into a rhythm and get back to doing things and progressing the way that he was, and have success doing them."

Roethlisberger made all the throws but clearly this week he hasn't been his usual strong-armed self. Still, with his arm at, say, 75 percent, it's better than Rivers's arm this season.

Never a strong thrower, Rivers has is lobbing pop-ups and looking more like Bernie Kosar during the latter stages of Kosar's career.

Rivers, who turned 31 yesterday, is averaging 7.0 yards per attempt this season after averaging 8.0 the first eight seasons of his career.

"But we know what he's capable of," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said when asked about Rivers.

"He's still the ultimate competitor," said Cotchery. "It didn't matter what we were doing, if we were playing Madden on the PlayStation or shooting pool or, really, anything."

As Cotchery spoke, he looked around the locker room at all of the tables Roethlisberger dominates during the Steelers' spare time.

"Same thing as Ben," Cotchery said. "That's why they're great."

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