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Big Ben needs to protect himself

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Mike Garafolo

Mike Garafolo is a Senior NFL Reporter for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. A native of Philadelphia who now resides in New Jersey, he is a former New York Giants beat writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark (N.J.) and a former NFL reporter for USA Today. Follow him on Twitter.

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CINCINNATI

Only a few minutes into the Pittsburgh Steelers' season opener against Tennessee last week, they lost one of their key players in center Maurkice Pouncey. For Todd Haley, the sideline response felt all too familiar.

The former Kansas City Chiefs head coach watched his team lose safety Eric Berry on opening day in 2011 and then running back Jamaal Charles a week later. Both times Haley watched the rest of the players overextend themselves to make up for the losses.

Now the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, Haley saw quarterback Ben Roethlisberger react in a similar way last week by reverting to an old habit of holding onto the football for a while in the name of making a play. Haley appreciates the effort and sacrifice, but he had to remind his 31-year-old quarterback this past week to keep his own safety in mind.

“The human nature thing is everybody tries to do too much, and obviously Ben, leading the team and handling the football every snap, he’s at the forefront of that,” Haley told FOX Sports by phone the other day. “That’s definitely something we’ve worked on and continue to work on and is part of his growth, as he’s in the last third of his career, so to speak, for him to be at the top of that list every year until he decides that’s enough for him.

“That’s what the discussions and everything has been about — knowing when to be Ben and when isn’t the time.”

Roethlisberger is a big body (he’s listed at 6-foot-5, 241 pounds), so he surely feels he can absorb the punishment. However he suffered a shoulder injury on a hit last November and missed the next three games. He then had offseason surgery to repair the meniscus cartilage in his knee.

In other words, Haley believes Roethlisberger has to think slightly more about himself and less about the team.

“I’ve said to people if I were selfish and it were just about me and making myself look good, I’d drop him back every time and get all five receivers out and say, ‘Ben, be Ben.’ But it’s been proven he generally is not going to hold up taking that beating,” Haley said. “So he’s got to protect himself, and we have to protect him in some other situations. When you’re behind, it’s always a little difficult. That will be the most difficult situation for him because he’s going to do everything he can to make plays and try to win the game.”

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The Steelers are expected to start former Titan Fernando Velasco at center Monday night against the Bengals. Velasco has been with the Steelers for only a week, so he obviously doesn’t provide the awareness Pouncey brings. That means an offensive line many questioned coming into the season could be even more questionable in the coming weeks.

Roethlisberger was sacked five times in last Sunday’s loss to Tennessee. To be fair to him, he didn't have much time to react on a few of those, but there were times he invited the contact. On many of those plays, no one seemed to be open. But as Haley noted, the sideline always is.

“He’s got such great ability to make things happen in situations where things break down, and that’s his instinct, that’s his nature, that’s his competitiveness, that’s everything. So that’s the fight of him understanding it is OK to throw the ball away sometimes,” Haley said. “It’s not in his nature and it’s what makes him great, so it’s a double-edged sword.”

HARRISON IN ORANGE SEEING RED?

Monday will be Bengals linebacker James Harrison's first game against his former team, which should result in some serious emotional play from Harrison, even if Harrison’s agent, Bill Parise, told FOX Sports his client hasn’t indicated he’s any more fired up for this game than any other. Yeah, right.

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Parise did share something interesting regarding Harrison, though, when he said the Bengals made it clear during negotiations in the spring they wanted Harrison to play about 70 percent of the snaps this season in an effort to preserve his body. Parise said Harrison always wants to play as much as possible but was on board with the plan.

“We knew how, when, where and why they wanted to use him. That was their call, not ours,” Parise said. “James understood their approach and agreed with it. He knew the statistics might not be the way they used to be, as far as sacks, but he saw the value in a different approach.”

Harrison, who had knee surgery last August and missed a total of eight games in the previous two seasons, played 62 percent of the defensive snaps. As late as last season with Pittsburgh, he was taking most, if not all snaps, on defense.

On Friday, in his session with the media, he said, “I feel better than I have in a long time, maybe since 2009 or 2010.”

Tagged: Bengals, Chiefs, Steelers, James Harrison, Ben Roethlisberger

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