Ben after 1 month: Good, and getting better
One month after returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger is an average quarterback.
By his standards, even if not by anyone else's.
He has five touchdown passes after three starts, compared to three a year ago, but his attempts and yardage are down. Then again, so are his interceptions. He's played one excellent game, one average game and one admittedly substandard game, winning two of them.
''I'm leaving plays out there,'' said Roethlisberger, who grades his play at about a C. ''I think there's a lot of room for improvement.''
While they won't say so, he's probably right about where the Steelers (5-2) expected him to be - on the field - following the four-game suspension that left him unable to play or practice from Sept. 3 through Oct. 3. They knew he would miss some passes, would need time after returning to get his timing and precision back.
''I think he's going to continue to play better as he continues to get into situations and knock the rust off,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ''The standard is to win a football game for us. I am less concerned specifically with how he plays and how he plays alone.''
Off the field, the two-time Super Bowl winner is exceeding expectations. Teammates say he's never looked more energized while going through the daily grind of playing the sport.
He's often the first player on the field for routine practices. He also seems less put out by the daily rituals than can quickly become boring to a player with his cache, such as the endless meetings, the constant interviews, the tape-watching and information-processing. No longer does Roethlisberger treat it like one big bore.
''He's like a little kid,'' wide receiver Hines Ward said.
The Steelers always liked the quarterback they had before, if not always the person who was that quarterback. They like him even better now. They expect to like him even more before the season ends.
''I think he's probably more appreciate of the mundane, but I don't think that's earth-shattering,'' Tomlin said. ''When you lose something for a period of time that you enjoy and love to do, you gain perspective and appreciation for it when it's returned to you.''
For comparison's sake, Roethlisberger is 52 of 82 for 754 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions and six sacks. Through his first three games last season, he was 78 of 109 for 860 yards, three TDs, four interceptions and seven sacks.
He's not throwing quite as much because of the Steelers' increased emphasis on running the ball, although Rashard Mendenhall doesn't have a 100-yard game since Roethlisberger returned. Mendenhall twice ran for 120 yards or more during Pittsburgh's first three games.
Roethlisberger felt he could have played better during a 23-22 victory at Miami on Oct. 24, when the Steelers didn't score a touchdown in the second half and he fumbled near the goal line. He was even less pleased after going 17 of 28 for 195 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, getting sacked three times and hit seven other times during the 20-10 loss Sunday at New Orleans.
The Saints also effectively kept him around the line of scrimmage, limiting his ability to improvise and create plays while scrambling.
''Good teams are aware of how good he is outside the pocket, so they try to keep him in the pocket,'' Ward said.
It was the one game to date where Roethlisberger showed some rustiness. He appeared to have difficulty with the noise inside the Superdome and with a defense that limited him to no completion longer than 25 yards.
''Teams always try to come after us, we know that,'' Roethlisberger said. ''We just have to be prepared for it and, last week, I don't think we were as prepared as we normally have been. We just had an off game, and hopefully that doesn't happen (again).''
Roethlisberger and the Steelers have an extra day to prepare for Monday night's game at Cincinnati (2-5), which has lost four in a row. The Bengals twice beat the Steelers last season, costing them the AFC North title and starting them on a five-game losing streak that ruined their season.
Roethlisberger hasn't forgotten.
''It's an AFC North game. It's a rivalry. That's all that you need,'' Roethlisberger said.
With the Steelers reaching the midpoint of their season, and games against the Patriots (6-1), Ravens (5-2), Jets (5-2) and Raiders (4-4) among those remaining, Roethlisberger is convinced he's not yet where he will be by the end of the season.
''I'm always going to try to improve, I don't care if it's Week 1 or 20,'' Roethlisberger said. ''There's some good things and some bad things. I'm just trying to constantly improve.''