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Ben Roethlisberger boosts Steelers' morale, expectations with his play at training camp

GERRY DULAC
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger drops back to pass during practice Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. (Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Three weeks into training camp and there is nothing different about Ben Roethlisberger’s progress or his ability to throw the ball, which is good news for the Steelers.

If there is any question, let tight end Vance McDonald put any concerns to rest.

“I would say he’s all the way back for sure,” McDonald said. “I love having him back.”

According to multiple sources who work with Roethlisberger, he is “throwing better than ever” and there are no changes to how he throws the ball or the manner in which he delivers his throws. If anything, the Steelers have had to back off how much they let him throw on practice days.

And, according to McDonald, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing the first time he saw Roethlisberger throw a ball in an informal workout session with his teammates. That was months ago, and nothing has changed.

“He was making some insane throws, off his back foot, across the field,” McDonald said. “I just remember in that moment thinking, ‘Golly, he is really back. It’s crazy and awesome to see.”

Then he added, “I was talking to Eric (Ebron) and I was like, ‘Dude, it’s so fun to see Ben like this.’ He’s pushing his arm to the limit, really testing to see what it can do. It was really cool to see.”

Returning from surgery: McDonald was echoing what many have been saying about Roethlisberger, who is returning from surgery to repair three detached flexor tendons in his right elbow. But it was the effusive manner in which McDonald talked about having the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback back in the huddle that was so different from his other teammates and coaches.

“I’m not afraid to say as he goes, we all go,” said McDonald, who sits next to Roethlisberger in the Steelers locker room. “This is the fourth year I’ve been here, and this is the most I’ve ever seen in terms of his hunger for wanting a championship.

“Being able to go through a heavy surgery for a quarterback and be where he is right now, it’s made him so hungry. The way he attacks a day is just different from what I’ve seen of him since I got here in 2017. I’m loving the leadership from him, the hunger and fire. You will notice that trickle down to the entire offense. Guys are just, like, flocking to him.”

Offense needs boost: Roethlisberger’s return should do wonders for an offense that couldn’t muster touchdowns in the final 10 games, especially in the red zone. The Steelers ranked last in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage (35%) last season — a drop from a league-best 73.47% in 2018.

What’s more, just having him in the backfield will prevent teams from doing what they did last season when defenses would stack the line of scrimmage, daring Mason Rudolph and/or Devlin Hodges to beat them. Doing that with Roethlisberger will send a lot of defensive coordinators to the unemployment line.

That should be a big boost for running back James Conner, who will need one after last season’s disappointing and injury-interrupted season. Conner rushed for only 464 yards in 2019, the first time in 52 years the Steelers’ leading rusher had fewer than 500 yards in a season.

“I think what Ben brings to the table that is so unique is the experience that he has in the red zone, which we sorely missed last year with young quarterbacks,” said offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. “You’re not going to fool him. He’s going to throw a touchdown where you’re just going to say, ‘Wow.’ That’s what those experienced, top-flight, best quarterbacks in the league do. I keep saying his abilities on third down, that experience, that’s the thing you can’t put a value on that he brings to the table.”

Making everyone better: But it’s just not that.

“I think the biggest thing with Ben is not that he is just a talented player in his own right, it is what he does for the people around him,” said five-time Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro. “He has the ability to make you play better, to force you to play better because he expects it. It is similar to [Maurkice] Pouncey in a way that true leaders aren’t just good players, you have to have that ability. They demand your best when you are out there, and you fall in line. That is a true leader.

“He has that presence in the huddle, and he expects the best from you and expects you not to lose. The more I have been around him through the years, he has always had that. I think that is what makes him great.”

Don’t believe him? Just ask McDonald.