PITTSBURGH _ In 16 seasons with the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger has felt different levels of nerves, varying measures of excitement, even had moments of apprehension, as he approaches the regular season.
With the Steelers finally on the verge of a season that many thought might never arrive, those emotions are heightened even more because of everything that has happened to Roethlisberger since Week 2 of the 2019 season.
Roethlisberger makes his much-anticipated return _ for him, his teammates, the organization, the fans _ against the New York Giants on Monday night in front of a national television audience. And he doesn’t even have to wait for the day of the game to be nervous or get antsy on the bus ride to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
That moment occurred Wednesday morning when he was driving to practice at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
“This was no joke. I was crossing the Veterans Bridge, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’m actually nervous for this season,’ “ Roethlisberger said. “You always have a little bit of jitters and nerves for the first game, but the way I feel now is more than I have felt in a very long time. I’m sure it’s only going to intensify as the week goes on. Then, Monday night, I’m sure I’m going to be shaking like a leaf.”
Such an admission would seem to be curious for a player who has won 13 of 21 playoff games and two Super Bowl titles. Or even for a player who has dealt with, and played through, enough injuries to supply a medical journal.
But after undergoing elbow surgery nearly a year ago, after going through the necessary rehab to regain his spin rate and arm strength, which he said is better than ever, Roethlisberger is not sure he has ever confronted so many personal emotions heading into season opener.
“It’s one of those things that you get out there, and hopefully it all comes back to me really quick,” Roethlisberger said. “There’s going to be rust. There’s no doubt about it, but hopefully, we can get it knocked off sooner than later.
“I think that’s what makes it fun. If I wasn’t nervous, and I didn’t have that anxiousness, I think you shouldn’t be out there. There’s not a love for the game if you don’t have that. I think since I have those nerves already, it just shows that I still love this game and am still passionate for it, and I want to go out and win for my teammates, the fans and the city.”
Then he added, “I’m not sure how bad it’s going to be _ we can talk after the game _ but I’m sure it’s going to be pretty different.”
Mike Tomlin hasn’t been a head coach as long as Roethlisberger has been in the NFL _ he came to the Steelers in 2007 _ but he understands the range of emotions that come before each game, each season. He experiences them himself.
“I don’t think you’re human if you don’t,” Tomlin said. “These games are important to us. We’re passionate about what we do. You get one shot a week over a six-month period to state a case for yourself. Yes, there are nerves. Yes, there is ridiculous excitement. I’m sure I’ll be really excited on Monday night.”
Roethlisberger has said throughout camp that he needs to take a hit against the Giants to calm his nerves and help knock off some rust. Well, that could happen more than he might like because the Steelers will be using three players are new positions on the offensive line _ Matt Feiler at left guard, Stefen Wisniewski at right guard and Zach Banner at right tackle.
Tomlin announced after practice Wednesday that Banner will start against the Giants. Wisniewski will start for five-time Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro, who will not play because of injury.
“I’m not exactly sure who’s starting, who’s not playing, who’s going to play,” Roethlisberger said. “I just go out there and try to throw the ball around. I know that Maurkice Pouncey is going to be out there, and that’s my center. That’s my comfort blanket. That’s what I’m looking forward to. Whoever Coach decides to put out there or can play health-wise or not health-wise, I’m excited to get back out and play football.”
Something else will be different for Roethlisberger, too.
He will run an offense that will have a slightly different look with some of the motion, misdirection and pre-snap shifts that have been infused by coordinator Randy Fichtner with the help of quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, a former college coach.
Roethlisberger said it has taken him some time to get adjusted to some of the new schemes, which are probably the most drastic adjustments he has encountered after working with four different coordinators.
There is a level of excitement and apprehension even with that.
“I think the biggest thing is that it’s definitely different for a player like myself who has been in the NFL for so long because it does have a lot of college feel to it. I know some teams have started to do it in the NFL the last couple of years. It’s different for me. It’s taken some getting used to, but I asked the linemen and our defense kind of what it does for them.
“It definitely throws the defense into a little bit of a tizzy when you see the motions and you’re not sure who’s getting the ball. It helps the linemen block sometimes, too, because it helps declare on defenses. This offense will have his fingerprints all over it, and you’ll see some stuff on Monday night, I’m pretty sure, with those motions. Hopefully, we can just be successful with it.”