Coach praises Ben Roethlisberger
LATROBE, Pa. -- If Ben Roethlisberger's offseason troubles are bothering him, Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians certainly hasn't noticed.
Less than a week into training camp, Arians' assessment of his quarterback: Never been better.
Arians can't remember Roethlisberger being in such good shape or throwing the ball this well so early during any of his previous six camps. He has yet to be intercepted during team drills, and Roethlisberger has gone entire practices without throwing an incompletion.
"He's in the best shape I've ever seen him," Arians said Tuesday. "His arm is live and he has no interceptions and very few incompletions unless they were dropped. This may be the best I've ever seen him right now."
Roethlisberger is quickly alleviating any Steelers worries that he might be distracted or preoccupied with the offseason accusation that he sexually assaulted a Georgia college student. He was not charged following the March incident, but was suspended by the NFL for six games -- a punishment that could be shortened to four games.
Roethlisberger admittedly was worried before camp opened how the fans would react to him, given the intense criticism he received following the accusation. So far, there been no sign of hostility at Saint Vincent College, no booing or discernible anti-Roethlisberger sentiment.
"You can tell he's been working to improve himself," wide receiver Hines Ward said.
Instead, Roethlisberger has looked so sharp, Arians is focusing more time on figuring out what the Steelers will do offensively during the suspension.
The answer: Probably not as much as they could if Roethlisberger played a full season.
Byron Leftwich, all but certain to start while Roethlisberger sits out, possesses an intimate knowledge of the offense and throws the deep ball well, but is not as mobile.
Dennis Dixon, the third-year quarterback from Oregon, runs better than any Steelers quarterback since Kordell Stewart but has a single game of starting experience. He'll likely begin the season as the starter only if Leftwich gets hurt.
Arians is so encouraged by how Roethlisberger looks, he believes the offense can be as good as it was last season, even though Roethlisberger can play no more than three-quarters of the season. Roethlisberger threw for a career-high 4,328 yards in 15 games and Hines Ward and the now-departed Santonio Holmes each had more than 1,000 yards receiving.
"We want to improve the running game, but we damn sure don't want to step back in the passing game," Arians said. "We want to have another 4,000-yard passer and two 1,000-yard receivers, and I don't care who they are. Now put the running game back to where it belongs, and I think we're pretty potent offensively."
Returning the running game back to a Steelers-like level -- Pittsburgh ranked an uncommonly low 19th in rushing last season -- was believed to be a major priority. But the necessity of preparing two starting quarterbacks in camp, one to start the season and the other to finish it, is shifting some attention away from that.
Arians and coach Mike Tomlin still aren't saying how much Roethlisberger and Leftwich will play during the four exhibition games, beginning Aug. 14 against Detroit. Because the starters rarely play past the first quarter, except during the third preseason game, there probably won't be enough snaps available for both quarterbacks to play with the starting line.
Regardless, Arians dismissed the speculation that Roethlisberger would play only with the starters to avoid injury.
"We did that [played the starters longer] two years ago and the guys wore out," Arians said. "It's a fine line. And I like our backup line. That whole second group, I don't mind putting anybody out with them. ... We're not afraid to throw the football because somebody might get hurt. We'll wait and see, but I would not see us giving our first team offensive line extra snaps."
Roethlisberger cannot practice during his suspension, so the only work he'll get with the offense until October will be during camp and in the preseason games.
"He's still driving the bus, and he wants to be good in every drill -- and when we get competing, that's Ben," quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner said. "He's competing at a high level right now because he knows the importance of the carryover he'll have for later."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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