Suspension allowed Roethlisberger to focus on mechanics
If Ben Roethlisberger's transition from football exile to the football field proves to be a relatively seamless one, the Steelers quarterback may have to credit a rake.
Yes, a rake.
Avoiding a swinging one is one of many drills that Roethlisberger took part in over the four-plus weeks he wasn't allowed to practice with the Steelers or play in any games.
How much his work with a personal quarterbacks coach sharpened Roethlisberger's game will ultimately be determined by, well, the games.
But Roethlisberger returned to practice last week armed with the confidence that he will be ready for his season debut next Sunday when the Browns visit Heinz Field.
"I feel like my feet are a lot faster and quicker," Roethlisberger said, "and I feel like the ball's getting out of my hand quicker."
Roethlisberger trained with George Whitfield Jr. as many as four days a week at Hampton High School while serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
The two first worked together last January in California, and they were nothing if not thorough during their second go-around, as Whitfield spent September shuttling between his home in San Diego and Pittsburgh.
They worked tirelessly on Roethlisberger's fundamentals while also simulating what he would have done in practices with the Steelers -- and what he will see in games.
One drill involved Whitfield tossing bean bags to different spots on the field and Roethlisberger racing to them and working on the feet that have been so adept at sidestepping opposing pass rushers.
Then there was one of the "chaos" drills, as Whitfield referred to it.
Positioning himself outside of an imaginary offensive line, Whitfield would rush at Roethlisberger wielding a rake after the latter had dropped back to pass.
"I lined (the rake) with styrofoam, and (Roethlisberger) kind of laughed," said Whitfield, who specializes in training quarterbacks at all levels. "I'd start charging in right after him, and I'd have it raised up in the air. And he knows once I get to him, I'm going to come swinging down on him, and the object is for him not to be there. I'd swing it across. I'd swing it down. I'd swing it at an angle -- basically trying to get his adrenaline up and make sure that he does not have that kind of comfort (zone)."
Roethlisberger, Whitfield said, would have him rush from various angles and at different times -- sometimes he delayed his start -- to simulate how defensive coordinators might try to attack him.
That underscored, Whitfield said, how active a role Roethlisberger took in his training program.
"When we came into it, he was like, 'What do you want to work on?' " Roethlisberger said of Whitfield. "I said, 'Well, there's a couple of small things I wouldn't mind you looking at. If you see something let me know and if it's something I don't think I should do, I won't do it.' "
The biggest question regarding Roethlisberger is how much his absence compromised his timing with players such as Hines Ward, Heath Miller and Mike Wallace.
The Steelers' bye week gave Roethlisberger three extra practices to work with his receivers. And one former NFL coach said he doesn't think timing will be as much of an issue with Roethlisberger as it might be with other quarterback because of how much he improvises.
"Ben's game is so unique," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, who's now an NFL analyst for Fox. "I've never seen a quarterback do more with 20 to 25 throws just because of the number of plays he makes outside of the pocket."
Roethlisberger did his share of throwing during his NFL-mandated layoff, working regularly with former Pitt and Saints tight end Darnell Dinkins as well as former Miami (Ohio) wide receiver and onetime teammate Jaime Cooper.
"We erred on the side of chopping more wood than we probably should have," Whitfield said of the amount of throwing Roethlisberger did, "but I think it's going to pay off for him."
Roethlisberger, Whitfield said, did more than just play pitch and catch with his receivers. He practiced calling plays at an imaginary line of scrimmage and barked out details such as which wide receiver should cut his route short if there was a blitz.
The two also watched film together, Whitfield said, and got the chance to work extensively on Roethlisberger's mechanics -- something most quarterbacks rarely have the time to do once the regular season starts.
Whitfield said they also talked about Roethlisberger not trying to do too much when he's back on the field for the Steelers.
That doesn't mean the Steelers won't lean on the sturdy signal caller. They are 31st in the NFL in passing offense (136 yards per game), and Roethlisberger is an established franchise quarterback and winner of two Super Bowls.
"To get to where we want to go, we have to have him on the field and playing," Ward said.
Whitfield will be among those at Heinz Field next Sunday when Roethlisberger plays his first regular-season game in more than 10 months.
He will watch with as much anticipation as Steelers fans but said he has no doubt that Roethlisberger will be ready.
"From a playing standpoint, once the ball's snapped, he's had thousands and thousands of reps in the last four weeks," Whitfield said. "When he gets out there, I just expect him to be sharp and collected and just be very, very aware that, 'Hey, I just need to do what No. 7 has to do.' I know he's going to come out and perform real well."