- Jane McManus, Reporter & Columnist, espnW.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There was just a sprinkling of No. 7 jerseys among the Steelers fans Saturday night at New Meadowlands Stadium, but those who made the trip got to see Ben Roethlisberger play for the first time since a Georgia investigation turned up evidence that did not result in charges but did mean he will sit as many as the first six games of the regular season.
Roethlisberger went 6-of-8 for 76 yards and an interception, for a QB rating of 64.6.
After apologies and explanations, Roethlisberger said he was just happy to be on the field.
"It was great," Roethlisberger said. "A lot of nerves, butterflies, excitement but to get back out there with the guys and get between the lines and the lights and the away stadium; it was awesome."
It was clear he wasn't the only one ready to turn the page.
"I don't care about the disruptions, quite frankly," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "When it comes to his performance he's a professional. His job is to play and to lead us and he's done that and he needs to continue to do that and we'll deal with all the other things we have to deal with in the appropriate manner."
It was the first time Roethlisberger has played since he was investigated by Milledgeville, Ga., police for an alleged sexual assault in the bathroom of a local bar last March. The quarterback was not charged, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was alarmed enough to suspend Roethlisberger for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. Goodell could reduce the suspension to four games.
It was not the first time the quarterback had been accused of something similar, and he faces a civil suit in Nevada stemming from a 2008 incident, in which a casino employee claims Roethlisberger raped her. Roethlisberger's attorney denies the charges.
"It's definitely been a more unique offseason more than any previous one we've had but I think the media tends to dwell on these types of things more than the team," Troy Polamalu said.
In his first series, Roethlisberger picked up two first downs, one from an 8-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller after a disguised handoff to Rashard Mendenhall, and the second on a 12-yard pass to Miller, a longtime target for the quarterback.
"It was good to have him back," Miller said. "I know he's happy to be back on the field with us and I'm sure it was a big weight off his shoulders and as always it's good to see him around."
On the second play of Roethlisberger's second series, he tried a deep pass to Mike Wallace, but Corey Webster got the underthrown ball instead. Although it was reported he would only play a series or two, it's hard to go out on an interception, and Roethlisberger finally put up some points when he came back out.
He had three passes in double digits, to Matt Spaeth (18 yards), Miller (13) and Randle El (17), but a sack from Mathias Kiwanuka on second-and-goal at the 6, followed by an incomplete pass, meant the Steelers had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Jeff Reed.
"The line did a good job and the backs picking up the blitz," Roethlisberger said, "and we moved the ball down the field pretty well as a unit and I'm a little disappointed we couldn't put the ball in the end zone when I was in there but we'll improve on that."
Still, in some ways Roethlisberger's performance is a bit of a mirage. For the first six games of the season he will be out of the picture, and the Steelers are going to have to find their wins on someone else's back. So even as teammates like Polamalu were glad to have him back on the field, it's just a midpoint in the process.
"When the season starts it's going to be a whole different story," Polamalu said. "It'll be interesting because we've never had to face something like that with a major role player on our team."
Ben Roethlisberger's performance Saturday was a bit of a mirage.