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Published: Friday, 9/5/2008

Roethlisberger earns his stripes

BY ED BOUCHETTE
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who played at Findlay High School, ranks as one of the NFL's best. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who played at Findlay High School, ranks as one of the NFL's best.
PETER DIANA Enlarge

Third of three in a series of NFL previews.

PITTSBURGH - Even without the new $100 million contract, the new captain's C on his jersey, the new Pro Bowl ring and the old Terry Bradshaw touchdown record, Ben Roethlisberger would be a superstar in Pittsburgh.

He is, after all, the only quarterback besides Bradshaw to win a Super Bowl for the Steelers, he enters his fifth season among the best at his position in the NFL and he maintains his sense of humor.

"If I get too big-headed, I get in motorcycle accidents," Roethlisberger cracked yesterday when the praise stacked high.

The place where he really has made progress, however, is in the locker room. Where once he seemed a loner and punk to teammates - Hines Ward once called him "our wild child" - he's now embraced more as a leader and even a friend by them. That was made more evident Monday when his teammates voted him and Ward co-captains of the offense.

"When you're young, you're young," said defensive end Aaron Smith, 32. "He's definitely matured. He's stepped into a leading role on this team, as a captain and as a player. I think he's really come a long way. He's always been a great player, but as a person and as a player, he's come a long way."

The old NFL philosophy was that it took five years for a quarterback to develop in the pros. Entering his fifth, Roethlisberger already achieved most everything. And now, there's little doubt that he also has attained control of his team. He has the track record and, at 26, the maturity to take over.

"Actually, he was a leader last year but now a lot of old faces aren't here anymore," Willie Parker said, "so it's his time to shine. He's really stepping up."

It's as if, since the departure of longtime offensive leader Alan Faneca, Roethlisberger has seized the chance to take control.

"You can tell that he realizes this is his team," tight end Heath Miller said.

A new head coach in Mike Tomlin and new coordinator in Bruce Arians gave Roethlisberger more responsibility last year by soliciting his input into the playbook, the game plans and the pass protections. He will have more this year, perhaps even an increased use of the no-huddle he ran so well at Miami (Ohio) University.

"The more I spend time with Bruce and we learn and make adjustments, the more freedom he will give me to make changes and adjust and hopefully get us in the right place and the best play possible," Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger broke Bradshaw's club record with 32 touchdown passes and his own record with a 104.1 passer rating last season. It was the best of his four, statistically, but Ward thinks we haven't seen anything yet.

"It's like night and day. Last year was his best year but it's scary now because he's starting to know his second and third reads and all that. You wonder how much better a season he can have coming into the second year of [Arians'] offense and having a better understanding of that."

Defensive end Brett Keisel is the closest friend Roethlisberger has in the locker room, and he disputes that the quarterback was snubbed last year when the players voted linebacker James Harrison as their MVP.

"Not to say Ben didn't play great last year," Keisel said, "but everyone thought James not only dominated on defense but on special teams too.

"Ben is a leader, he's a great leader. If you watch practice, you watch him, he has control of all his guys, he has control of the offensive line, everyone looks up to him for leadership. I think they're seeing that from him this year and that's why they elected him captain."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ed Bouchette is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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