Ben Roethlisberger is the same player who, just a week ago, stood and stared Heinz Field video board as it showed replays of his mistakes and Steelers fans booed him.
There were no sweeping adjustments in the way Roethlisberger sees or plays the game. He didn’t change between Weeks 5 and 6 — a 30-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a 19-13 win over the previously undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. He hasn’t changed as he’s tucked into the twilight years of his career.
But he’s not a “backyard quarterback.” Just an aging one. The relationship between Roethlisberger’s perception, which he embraces, and his performance is complicated. Pittsburgh’s reality is not.
“He’s still Ben,” Martavis Bryant said. “But we ain’t getting younger each day, everybody’s getting older so he’s getting older as well. So pretty much he’s still the same to me.”
“It ain’t manifested in his play or anything.”
On Sunday, Roethlisberger floated a sideline pass to the right sideline where Bryant had beaten Marcus Peters on the turn. Bryant had enough time and space to make a routine catch, but Roethlisberger’s throw sailed high and wide. Pittsburgh punted two plays later, leaving the Chiefs in a game in which they netted just 33 yards in 34 minutes.
Darrius Heyward-Bey has caught NFL passes from Terrelle Pryor and Andrew Luck before he played with Roethlisberger. He still considers Roethlisberger one of the three most accurate receivers in the league.
And wildly misunderstood.
Heyward-Bey laughs at the public understanding of Roethlisberger as a “backyard quarterback.” “It’s stupid,” he said. He laughs at the mention of Roethlisberger playing it up, too. “Yeah,” he said.
This is a label Roethlisberger has embraced in the past decade, as a member of radically different-looking Steelers teams and this week after his zero touchdown, five interception performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
His teammates get why he does. And ultimately think it doesn’t matter. Heyward-Bey got to see just how hollow the notion was when he joined the Steelers in 2014.
“From the outside looking in I’ve always looked at Ben as a backyard-type quarterback, but he’s not. I think his line in the past showed that he had to become that,” Heyward-Bey said. “But now that we have a better line, guys who protect him it shows the ability. He has touch, he has anticipation.”
Heyward-Bey knows, he said, Roethlisberger would rather take five steps, hitch and throw.
The problem for Pittsburgh has been that the hitches, throws and risks he’s taken in the past year-plus have increasingly put the Steelers in poor positions.
Yet there’s nothing the team can — or at least, has — done to deter them.
Mike Tomlin said the Steelers haven’t changed the plays they call for Roethlisberger. And Roethlisberger is hardly steering away from his riskiest plays, even while he misses more of the routine.
After the Steelers’ loss to the Jaguars at Heinz Field, Roethlisberger whistled to himself in front of his locker as he got dressed, then raised and burnt straw man arguments about his future.
A week later, he floated a ball into double coverage at the sideline. It was too shallow for Antonio Brown, bounced off a Kansas City Chiefs defender and became the game-winning play.
Roethlisberger didn’t beat to the Chiefs on Sunday, but he did help keep them in the game.
But in much the same way Roethlisberger won’t stop rolling with whatever Pittsburgh fans project onto him, the Steelers know he’s the same signal caller — and changer — he was … and just, is.