Roethlisberger off the mark in season debut

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Five surgical plates hold several of Ben Roethlisberger's still-knitting facial bones together. There was a bulky flak jacket that covered the three tiny puncture marks where his diseased appendix, removed via laparoscopic surgery only 15 day earlier, used to be. And while a pregame report that Roethlisberger was battling a 104 degree temperature may have been embellished a bit, he was still fighting off some sort of virus.

It all added up to a painful experience for the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, making his first start of the season after an offseason marked by physical tumult and an exhibition slate in which he logged fewer than 50 snaps. And it also added up to far too much rust resulting in too few big plays in the Steelers' ugly 9-0 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars Monday night.

"Yeah, I think there is a degree of truth to that," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said when asked if the performance of his quarterback might be attributed to inactivity.

Indeed, in what was arguably the poorest outing of Roethlisberger's career and one of the worst offensive displays of Cowher's coaching tenure, the youngest quarterback ever to shepherd his team to a Super Bowl championship resembled an old, metal deck chair left out in the rain too long. And at least with the deck chair, an ample dose of Rust-Oleum might have some restorative powers.

There was, for Roethlisberger, no way to paint a pretty picture on what transpired versus the aggressive Jacksonville defense or on some wounds that were simply self-inflicted.

"I was a little under the weather, but I felt OK," said Roethlisberger, who completed 17 of 32 passes for 141 yards, with two interceptions and a passer rating of just 38.7. "I just wasn't making plays I should have been making. No excuses."

Actually, Roethlisberger's entire offseason was a built-in excuse for his poor play, and credit the Steelers' star for not relying on his litany of physical woes as a convenient alibi.

It was about the only thing, though, the third-year veteran could be credited for.

"He probably wasn't as sharp, given everything that's gone on, but we didn't do much as an offense and it's not like he was the only one [struggling]," tight end Heath Miller said.

Really, there was no reason to believe Roethlisberger would be on top of his game, especially against a very good defense. One columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had taken to referring to Big Ben as Big Convalescence during his troubled offseason. Even if Roethlisberger was physically whole -- and he wasn't -- there would have been the issue of his lack of playing time.

It was obvious early on that Roethlisberger was anything but fine-tuned in his 2006 debut, and one first-quarter series seemed to serve as a microcosm for his lack of accuracy. On a second-and-11 from the Pittsburgh 36-yard line, Roethlisberger missed Miller on a seam route to the right side, his throw wide by about a foot.

Two plays later, on what was arguably Pittsburgh's best scoring chance all night, Roethlisberger threw deep for wide receiver Hines Ward, who had burst past overmatched free safety Deon Grant while the ball was in the air. But the pass was two feet too long for Ward, who made a diving attempt for it. The Steelers, who punted on 8 of 11 possessions, were intercepted on two others and turned the ball over on downs once, didn't get any closer than that.

Of the Steelers' 17 completions, none was for longer than 18 yards, and nine netted 10 yards or less.

Cowher defended Roethlisberger to some extent, noting that Pittsburgh receivers dropped three passes in the first half, all of them on key plays. True enough, any of those plays might have served as an impetus for the sputtering Steelers' offense. But none of the drops was particularly egregious, all would have been tough catches, and two came with Jacksonville defenders making contact. It would have been easier had Roethlisberger demonstrated his usual marksmanship, but that was hardly the case.

It wasn't as if Roethlisberger missed by much, but he was like a pitcher who is just off the corners by a fraction, and suffers for that touch of mild wildness. Of course, it didn't help that the Pittsburgh running game was nonexistent, registering a paltry 26 yards on 14 carries, the worst total in Cowher's 15 seasons as head coach.

With a tough divisional game against Cincinnati next on the schedule, the Steelers' offense needs to get well quickly, and Roethlisberger needs to rediscover the kind of pinpoint accuracy that marked his first two years in the league. In a short work week, Pittsburgh and its star quarterback could put in some long work hours. Then again, work is precisely what is needed most by the rusty Roethlisberger, whose first start was defined by his lack of precision.

"A lot of the [offensive malaise] was my fault," Roethlisberger said, stating the obvious. "I didn't get on the same page as the receivers and I made some throws I probably shouldn't have made. I told [Cowher] not to worry about me. I'll be OK with another week of practice."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.