After a one-month hiatus, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned to work this week. Roethlisberger, who was suspended four games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, will make his 2010 debut Oct. 17 against the Cleveland Browns.
But plenty of issues remain for the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. In anticipation of Roethlisberger's return, here are seven questions and answers before he takes the field:
1. How long will it take Roethlisberger to get in sync with the offense?
Analysis: Not long. This offense was built for and around Roethlisberger by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Roethlisberger simply has to step back into the driver's seat and run the machine. The Steelers have several factors going for them. They were wise to give Roethlisberger plenty of first-team reps in training camp and work with the starters in the preseason. Roethlisberger also will benefit from the bye week, which gives the Steelers two weeks to shake the rust and work on timing. Roethlisberger has been working out at a Pittsburgh-area high school and says he's thrown more footballs per day than he would in practice. Early reports have been good in practice. If Roethlisberger had his choice, he wouldn't have to wait until Oct. 17.
"I want to play this week. That's the hard part; I want to be out there right away," Roethlisberger said at his news conference this week. "But it's a good thing to have two weeks of practice. But my arm is ready. I'm not worried about my arm."
2. What kind of changes will the offense make?
Analysis: The first and biggest change is Pittsburgh will be less conservative. There was only one way the Steelers could win consistently without Roethlisberger, and that was to play it safe on offense and be lights out on defense. Pittsburgh executed its plan to near perfection and got off to a 3-1 start. Now Arians can take more chances and open his entire playbook. Roethlisberger said Monday that he doesn't want to throw it "60 times." But throwing it 30 to 35 times is a good number for Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 31st in passing offense through four games. Look for that ranking to improve dramatically with Roethlisberger under center.
3. Will Roethlisberger be accepted by his teammates?
Analysis: Everything looks good so far. Roethlisberger received a warm greeting from teammates when he arrived this week. It's no secret Roethlisberger wasn't Pittsburgh's most popular player in the past. His irresponsibility this offseason also resulted in his captain status being stripped this year. But absence can make the heart grow fonder, and Roethlisberger's effort to improve as a person is being well-received by the team. Everyone knows Roethlisberger is a gamer, and he has always earned his teammates' respect in the locker room with his toughness and football ability. Now he has to work on the personal side and being more responsible, and it appears he's taking steps in the right direction.
"Every single one of the guys I've seen gave me a big hug," Roethlisberger said. "I was just so happy to see that and they were so happy to see me as well."
4. What about the fans?
Analysis: This is the X factor. Roethlisberger was asked about this during a news conference Monday and he said he wasn't sure. Many in Steeler Nation were upset by Roethlisberger's actions. Most stuck with him during the first sexual assault allegation and were turned off that he would put himself in a precarious position twice in less than a year. Getting suspended four games also put the team in jeopardy of having a slow start. But the offseason ire has seemingly worn off. The Steelers are off to a great start and there are good vibes in Pittsburgh about the chances of this year’s team, especially now that Roethlisberger is back. Winning will help, and Roethlisberger knows that. That is why he has worked extremely hard in the interim to stay sharp.
5. Who benefits most from Roethlisberger's return?
Analysis: There are plenty of beneficiaries when a team gets its best offensive player back. But if I had to pick two players who it impacts the most, it would be starting receiver Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller. Both players sacrificed production and were forced to take reduced roles in the offense. Miller is averaging 2.5 receptions a game and Ward is averaging 3.0 catches. Their biggest contributions so far have been in the running game, as Ward and Miller are among the best blockers at their positions. Their specialty is making tough catches in coverage over the middle, but neither Dennis Dixon nor Charlie Batch took those kinds of risks. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger trusts his arm and will have more freedom to throw over the middle to Ward and Miller and give his playmakers a chance.
6. How much pressure is on Roethlisberger after Pittsburgh's fast start?
Analysis: This is a tricky question because the answer has two sides. In some ways, Roethlisberger's teammates did a great job of taking the pressure off him by not digging an early hole. If the Steelers were 1-3 instead of 3-1, most of the blame would have been put on Roethlisberger's absence, and it would have put immense pressure on him to come in and try to save Pittsburgh's season. Instead, the Steelers are in a great position and Roethlisberger can simply keep the team rolling in the right direction. But with a fast start also come increased expectations. Many prognosticators thought this was an eight- or nine-win team that barely had a chance to make the playoffs. Now the bar is much higher for this season, and it's up to Roethlisberger to help the Steelers meet those increased expectations.
"I think there's a lot of great chemistry on this team right now," Roethlisberger said. "They are playing great football on offense, defense and special teams from what I've been able to watch of the games. I'm not coming to try to be anything more than what I am. I'm just trying to be helpful and do whatever I can to help this team win football games."
7. Are the Steelers really Super Bowl contenders?
Analysis: Yes. The AFC is deep, but Roethlisberger is one of the NFL's top five quarterbacks and one of the few with two Super Bowl rings. He knows how to get it done, and it doesn't hurt that he has a large chip on his shoulder and a lot of making up to do with his teammates and the city. I covered the Steelers during their last Super Bowl run in 2008, and you could sense the chemistry and talent were there to make a run. Barring any significant injuries -- which are always possible -- I'm getting the same feeling about this year's team early on. The Steelers are good enough to make another playoff run as long as Roethlisberger holds up his end.