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Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger might be an 'old dog,' but he can learn new tricks

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Stephen A. sounds off on NFL players' complaints of COVID-19 protocols (2:32)

Stephen A. Smith doesn't hold back his anger toward players who chose to play this season but now complain about their safety. (2:32)

PITTSBURGH -- After throwing for 311 yards and two touchdowns, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger criticized his performance in a Week 2 win over the Denver Broncos.

There was plenty to like about his stat line in just his second game back from last year's elbow injury. But there also was plenty that didn't make him happy: one interception, completing 29 of 41 passes and a sack.

It's not that Roethlisberger was focusing on the negatives; it's that he was identifying where he needed to most improve.

"I didn't feel like I got my feet set on some of the throws," Roethlisberger said. "The one I threw behind on third down should have been an easy completion. If you look at the Jumbotron, you see that my feet weren't turned and set. Some of that is just lazy footwork."

After 17 seasons in the NFL, Roethlisberger, 38, isn't afraid to admit where he needs to do better. He also is not afraid to do the work, leading him to come back even stronger after an injury-shortened season. And that work ethic is also elevating the entire offense as the Steelers look for their first 4-0 start since 1979 on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

"You hear other coaches say, you're only getting better, and a day that you don't get better, you're getting worse," tight end Vance McDonald said. "So, to see a guy like Ben come out, and he's been doing it for so long. He's doing little things each day to improve his game. It's contagious for guys to see it, again, his natural leadership ability. He's going to bring guys along with him."

Three days after being critical of his footwork, Roethlisberger got out on the practice field at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex with new quarterbacks coach Matt Canada and ran through a series of drills focusing on his feet. Roethlisberger was officially off that day, a Wednesday, as he has been for the past couple of years, but his determination to get his feet right superseded his need for a midweek rest.

"He walked in, and he asked for it," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. "He said, ‘Hey, I want to get a little footwork done. Obviously, I'm not going to throw.'

"Anytime that he's working footwork and anytime that he is working on just base fundamentals, we challenge the whole group. Week to week, the first thing we have to do individually is improve -- that's collectively as a player and a coach -- and learn and move forward. That's real positive that he was in that position and wanted to and felt good to do that."

For Fichtner, seeing Roethlisberger take extra steps to make up for his deficiencies is an encouraging sign. But he also has to caution him not to do too much, too fast.

"He's not the old dog that can't learn new tricks," Fichtner said. "He wants to win. And that's just the bottom line. ... Coach Matt [Canada] and Mike [Tomlin] and myself will always look to make sure he won't walk in on Wednesday and say, "I want to go. I want to take all the reps.'

"'Well, Ben, I love your want to, I love all that, but we have to be smart about the wear and tear over a long season that we are trying to have.' I love his attitude about it. I know that he wants to be perfect, and I know that we are not all perfect and we're not going to be. But he strives to be, and I think that is part of the reason he is a great leader and why he has played in [221] games. It is a credit to him. Like I said, he wants to work."

Roethlisberger, who has thrown for seven touchdowns with one interception this season, saw some results later that week in the comeback win against the Texans on Sept. 27 -- completing 23 of 36 passes for 237 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. But he still wasn't satisfied.

"As long as we're winning, it's OK that I'm still trying to get back into the flow of it," Roethlisberger said after the game. "I felt the footwork was better. There [were] still a couple of throws that I didn't quite get my feet around ... I'll let you know one of these weeks when I feel like I've played a good one."

That task, though, becomes harder against the Eagles following an unexpected bye that threatens to shake Roethlisberger out of his budding rhythm.

"The league already tried to slow it down, so I guess I'm going to start back over from scratch and hope this week I didn't take too many steps backward," Roethlisberger said. "Just try and see how it goes this week, I guess."

Part of the challenge is rekindling the chemistry he was beginning to build with receivers such as Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson along with tight end Eric Ebron. In Weeks 2 and 3, Roethlisberger found Claypool and Ebron for their first touchdowns as Steelers.

And in Week 3, the offense found a long-desired balance as James Conner rushed for 109 yards to complement a passing attack spread among receivers and tight ends.

Now, it's up to Roethlisberger and his weapons to shake off the break and find that flow again.

"I think we just need to go back and play, and I think he will see that rhythm for him coming back," Fichtner said. "I do believe in the first three weeks -- every week was getting a little bit more comfortable, a little bit more comfortable. I probably don't think about it as much, but all those reps that you miss in the OTAs and minicamp and true training camp and the rapport with the receivers.

"... I don't take for granted that Ebron and some of the newer wide receivers, Chase, and the guys that have been playing, that sometimes it takes some time."