By Dave Hanneman
Exclusive to The Courier
LATROBE, Pa. --- No questions.
Ben Roethlisberger was zipping passes all over the practice field during the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. Tuesday. Slants over the middle. Out patterns. Even a deep ball or two. All were right on the money except for one pass he threw away when the tight end missed a linebacker blitz coming off the corner and Big Ben had to throw it away.
In a word, the kid from Findlay looks good.
Actually that’s two words. But it may take a lot more than two to describe the comeback Roethlisberger has made.
Just over a year ago, he nearly lost his life in a motorcycle accident. Amazingly, he returned for the Steelers opener, but sidelined two weeks later when he underwent an emergency appendectomy. Again he returned to the lineup, but the Steelers, who reached the AFC championship game in 2004 and won the Super Bowl a year later, never pulled off the banner season many expected of them. Pittsburgh finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs. And Roethlisberger, who may have rushed back into action too quickly either by his insistence or that of the team, shouldered much of the blame.
Many pre-season concerns centered on Big Ben’s ability to rebound from that 2006 season, when he threw for 3,513 yards – second highest single-season total in Steelers history – but was sacked a career-high 46 times and threw an NFL-leading 23 interceptions. But the led Findlay to the state playoffs in 1999 and Miami of Ohio a bowl victory in 2003 has quieted the critics with his play so far in camp.
While he shouldered much of the blame for 2006, Roethlisberger now shoulders the responsibility of putting last season in the forgettable past.
“I’m feeling good, better than I’ve ever felt, even better than when I got drafted,” Roethlisberger said in an exclusive interview with The Courier after Tuesday’s afternoon workout.
Lean and trim, Big Ben looks to be in thr best shape of his life.
“I started my off-season program a week or two after the season ended.” Big Ben said. “Nothing strenuous at first. Just riding the (stationary) bike, but doing more than what I’d normally done.
“I started right away, and I think it’s paying off.”
The Steelers have a new head coach (Mike Tomlin), new offensive coordinator (Bruce Arians) and new quarterback coach (Ken Anderson).
But they still have the same quarterback, Roethlisberger, and he knows that this team will more a reflection of his leadership than any before it.
“Without trying to force the issue and take over, I feel that is (his team),” Roethlisberger said.
“I feel the guys have done it naturally. I think I’ve been put back in a leadership role and I welcome it.
“It’s always been my mentality, whether in football or basketball or baseball or even life. I guess I’ve always tried to be a leader, so I try to be a leader with these guys and lead by example.”
Working with the No.1 offense during an 11-on-11 drill in Tuesday’s practice, Roethlisberger, who this year calls the blocking assignments as well as the plays, went no-huddle and opened with a crisp pass to Cedrick Wilson on an out pattern. He then found Nate Washington, who played at Tiffn University, over the middle. He sidestepped a blitz and completed his third straight pass, then found Washington and Wilson again for good gains.
On a 93-degree day, Roethlisberger was hotter than the St. Vincent monks in their long black robes.
So far, it seems, the kid from Findlay is making a lot of people, Steelers coaches included, forget all about 2006.