How much time? Steelers debate Ben Roethlisberger’s preseason playing time
If recent history is any indication, Ben Roethlisberger will put on his helmet Sunday night and play two series – three tops – when the Pittsburgh Steelers play at Tennessee in their third preseason game.
Then, the veteran quarterback will slip on a baseball cap and wait until the season opener two weeks later at New England before he takes another snap in a game setting.
That scenario has repeated itself since the 2016 preseason. Roethlisberger sits out the first two games, plays less than a half in the third and then takes a seat again for the fourth game.
Is it enough work for a franchise quarterback? Is it necessary for him to play at all given the possibility of an injury that can ruin a team’s season?
Those are the questions Roethlisberger, the Steelers and the rest of the NFL have debated in recent seasons as starters have seen less playing time in the preseason than ever before.
One thing is clear: Roethlisberger wants to start against Tennessee.
“There is some value (in playing) because every game counts in the NFL,” Roethlisberger said. “In all the other major sports, you can get away with losing some games, and you can kind of warm up to it, if you will, because (the season) is so long. But our season, you can’t really afford to do that.
“To go out there and get the actual game speed is definitely beneficial. I think it’s a line you walk of not doing too much for risk of injuries.”
But is a token appearance in the penultimate preseason game enough to keep a quarterback razor-sharp for the season opener? In 2016, the first year that Roethlisberger appeared in just one preseason game, he played two series at New Orleans and directed a pair of touchdown drives.
Such precision was a prelude to the opener at Washington two weeks later when Roethlisberger completed 27 of 37 passes for 300 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in a 38-16 win.
The results, however, were mixed the following two seasons. In 2017, Roethlisberger again played only two series in the preseason, drives that produced three total points, and he completed 24 of 36 passes for 263 yards, two touchdowns and one interception at Cleveland. That was good enough for the Steelers to gut out a 21-18 win against a team that would finish 0-16.
Roethlisberger struggled out of the gate last season when he threw three first-half interceptions and had a 60.5 passer rating in a 21-21 tie against the Browns. He completed 23 of 41 passes for 335 yards and one touchdown. This came after he played three series and 24 snaps in the preseason while directing one touchdown drive.
“Even if you play a little bit in, say, all four games and don’t play sharp in the opener, there’s always going to be something (said),” Roethlisberger said. “You just hope if you don’t play sharp in the opener that you play well enough to win.”
Roethlisberger recovered from that sluggish start in the opener last year to lead the NFL in passing yards, although he also threw more interceptions than any quarterback.
What Roethlisberger doesn’t get in preseason game competition, he makes up for in practice reps.
“When you’ve got a good veteran group, we’ve been getting so much work in that I don’t know if live game stuff is going to change that,” he said. “It’s a matter that we continue to work in practice that is good to me.”
Roethlisberger turned 37 in the offseason, so it makes sense for him to get more rest than he did earlier in his career. In fact, in six seasons from 2010-15 while in the prime of his career, Roethlisberger started three preseason games on five occasions.
Ultimately, coach Mike Tomlin will decide when – and how long – Roethlisberger is on the field in the preseason.
“Sometimes there have been times when he said I’m done, but I want one more series because it didn’t finish the way we wanted it to,” Roethlisberger said. “But 99.9 percent of the time, he overrules me.”
JuJu Smith-Schuster, who moves into the No. 1 wide receiver role with the trade of Antonio Brown to Oakland, is looking forward to getting some preseason work with Roethlisberger.
“It gets the rhythm going, you’re building that connection and chemistry between everybody,” he said. “Obviously, we have veteran guys who have played together before. Guys like (Donte) Moncrief, he’s new to the system. Diontae (Johnson) and (Benny) Snell, those guys have to get used to how Ben plays his game.”
Given the number of snaps Roethlisberger is expected to play – he has averaged 20 over the past three preseasons – it might not be possible to run plays designed for all of the new skill position players.
“I’m going to try to get on the field with as many as possible,” Roethlisberger said. “I think everyone will get a little time because we want to play that way this year. We don’t want guys on the field to wear themselves out.”
Especially not the franchise quarterback.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .