Cheers or jeers? Roethlisberger about to find out
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Maybe he’ll take a few snaps, throw a pass or two. Maybe he won’t even get off the bench.
Ben Roethlisberger returns to Heinz Field for the first time since embarrassing himself and the Pittsburgh Steelers with off-field behavior that resulted in a six-game suspension and condemnation from his fan base. It’s a night he once dreaded but, now that it’s here, Roethlisberger said he expects mostly cheers, not jeers and hostility.
Roethlisberger is being greeted enthusiastically by spectators during training camp, but he might get a more accurate gauge of how Steelers fans feel about his offseason sexual assault allegations during Saturday’s exhibition game against Detroit.
Roethlisberger has said repeatedly during camp that he is eager to move on and concentrate on football. He only hopes his fans are as willing, too.
“They’ve been awesome,” Roethlisberger said of the fans who’ve repeatedly cheered him and eagerly sought his autograph during camp. “I think and hope it will be awesome.”
Roethlisberger was accused of, but not charged with, assaulting a Georgia college student in March, drawing the NFL’s harshest suspension for a player with a clean arrest record. The case ignited the wrath of Steelers supporters who burned his jersey or barred their children from wearing the quarterback’s No. 7.
Five months later, with the focus of fans shifting to beating the Bengals and Ravens, it’s apparent many believe the Steelers are better equipped to accomplish that with Roethlisberger.
The spirited reception to date encourages Steelers officials, who didn’t anticipate hordes of Roethlisberger antagonists lining the practice fields at the Saint Vincent College camp. But they also didn’t expect this much enthusiasm and forgiveness so soon. The next test is playing a home game, where fans eager to vent their displeasure can do so with more anonymity than they can on a cozy college campus.
What coach Mike Tomlin isn’t saying is whether Roethlisberger or Byron Leftwich will be the quarterback when the starters play the eight to 12 snaps he plans to give them. The Steelers are preparing two starting quarterbacks in camp, Leftwich to start the season and Roethlisberger to finish it after he returns from a suspension that could be reduced to four games.
Roethlisberger definitely wants to play.
“If he says I won’t be playing, I’ll probably try to talk him out of it,” Roethlisberger said. “Coach might think it’s better to come back on the road where you’re going to get booed no matter what happens. But I want to get back to Heinz Field. That’s definitely home.”
Even if Roethlisberger plays, Dennis Dixon figures to get most of the playing time at quarterback as the Steelers gauge how far the former Oregon star has progressed since nearly beating Baltimore on the road last season during his one and only NFL start. They’re also eager to get a look at promising rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, both of whom may return kicks, and first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey.
Pouncey is expected to play center and right guard, where he might line up against Ndamukong Suh, the former Nebraska defensive lineman and No. 2 pick in the April draft.
Unlike the Steelers, the Lions — 2-14 last season after going 0-16 in 2008 — have only one starting quarterback to prepare, Matthew Stafford.
“We need to do a better job of supporting our quarterback,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “That means playing better defense so you’re not behind in the fourth quarter. It means running the ball better. It means giving him different places where he can get rid of the ball so it’s not all on his shoulders.”