PITTSBURGH — The chronic ache in his right arm, the one that served as Ben Roethlisberger's companion for years, is gone.
No more fibbing about being fine when offensive co-ordinator Randy Fichtner asks how he's feeling. No more gritting his teeth and trying to ignore it when the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback tries to throw the ball down the field. No more going through training camp with shackles on trying to manage something that ultimately became unmanageable.
Midway through his 17th training camp, Roethlisberger insists his patched up right elbow isn't just serviceable, it's potentially better than it's been in years. He points to his active practice schedule as proof.
The player that would often go one day on, one day at half speed and then one day off is now practically bouncing from drill to drill. While the 38-year-old remains on a “pitch count," as Fichtner put it, Roethlisberger threw three consecutive days last week, something he hasn't done in years. When the regular season starts, he's optimistic he'll be able to practice on both Wednesdays and Thursdays, a rarity in recent years.
“I definitely need to give it some time to rest, that kind of one day off every so often out of general fatigue and soreness,” Roethlisberger said Thursday. “But it’s amazing how fast it bounces back and feels great the next day.”
Roethlisberger dealt quietly with some sort of discomfort in his right arm for years, to the point where Fichtner would often see Roethlisberger working on his wrist during meetings to provide some level of comfort. Whenever Fichtner would approach Roethlisberger about it, Roethlisberger would downplay the problem. It came to a head in the final minutes of the first half against Seattle last September, when three of the five flexor tendons in his elbow finally had enough.
Though Roethlisberger declined to blame the issue for his performance, the renewed zip on the ball since the Steelers donned the pads last week has caught him off guard.
“One of the practices last week, I wasn’t able to step into it and I threw a go-ball down the left sideline and it felt like when it came out of my hand, it was going to be short,” Roethlisberger said. "And it ended up making it there in stride. I was kind of surprised at how my arm strength has kind of come back, maybe even better than it was before.”
Part of Fichtner's job is trying to make sure Roethlisberger doesn't overdo it. The Steelers are attempting to curb some of the extracurricular activities Roethlisberger does before and after practice, be it working with newly acquired tight end Eric Ebron or trying to beat longtime teammate Maurkice Pouncey in their regular contest to see who can ding the crossbar with a football from 30ish yards out.
They might not seem like much — he's not rifling the ball in either scenario — but over time, it can add up. And Roethlisberger is acutely aware that he only has so many throws left in him, no matter how good he feels. Spending 14 games watching the Steelers try to go on without him provided tangible evidence of how quickly things can be taken away.
That's why he's not trying to look too far down the road. Yes, he feels great. Yet he demurred when asked if he plans to join contemporaries such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees and play on the other side of 40.
His vision is considerably more short-sighted. He's trying to get up to speed on an offence that now includes Ebron and rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool. That means throwing the occasional “bad ball” during warm-ups to see what the guys he's throwing to can — and can't — do.
“(The passes) going to be in an area, hopefully as far as possible away from another colour jersey but in the vicinity that a receiver is going to be able to make a play and comfortably understand why that ball was put there,” Fichtner said. "That happens all the time.”
Roethlisberger tries to limit the intentionally off-target passes for non-competitive drills. When things sped up on Thursday, he looked very much like the quarterback who won the NFL passing title in 2018. He hit tight end Vance McDonald down the seam with the offence backed up. He threw low to Claypool in the end zone, giving the second-round pick enough room to use his 6-foot-4 frame to box out the defender.
There's still one box that Roethlisberger knows he won't be able to check until Pittsburgh opens the season at the New York Giants on Sept. 14. As much as he's begged outside linebacker T.J. Watt and others to give him “a little bump” every once in a while during practice, they haven't taken him up on the offer. That means he'll have to wait until the lights are on and it counts to get hit. Yeah, he's a little anxious about it.
“Getting hit and calming the nerves will be big ones for me,” Roethlisberger said.
It's actually a refreshing change of pace. He's no longer concerned about the throbbing in his right arm that never really went away. He can sling it with abandon.
“No more sharp pains or dull pains or anything in that elbow,” Roethlisberger said. "I’m very thankful for that.”
NOTES: The Steelers announced they will not allow fans into Heinz Field for at least their first two home games on Sept. 20 against Denver and Sept. 27 against Houston. ... The team did not strongly consider opting out of practice to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Wisconsin. Coach Mike Tomlin said the team remains committed to making a difference off the field, pointing to initiatives such as voter registration drives and working with law enforcement as a result.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press