STILL TICK­ING

Roeth­lis­berger to set fran­chise mark for games.

The Times-Tribune - - FOOTBALL - BY WILL GRAVES

PITTS­BURGH — Randy Ficht­ner watched the big kid with the strong arm and the sense of in­vin­ci­bil­ity that is the prov­ince of the very young and im­me­di­ately grew wor­ried.

So Fichter, then the Pitts­burgh Steelers’ quar­ter­backs coach, sug­gested to Ben Roeth­lis­berger that he might want to think about get­ting rid of the ball a lit­tle sooner. Push the tempo a lit­tle faster. Don’t take so many risks. Ab­sorb fewer hits. In other words, play it safe. “And I’ll never for­get, he looked at me and says, ‘Randy, then I wouldn’t be me,’” Ficht­ner, now Pitts­burgh’s of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, said Thurs­day. “And from that mo­ment, I knew that there’s a rea­son why he’s been Big Ben.”

Im­prob­a­bly, all these years later, Roeth­lis­berger is still here. Still play­ing. Still throw­ing. Still per­form­ing. And while he’s learned a thing or two about dis­cre­tion dur­ing his 17 sea­sons in the league, the 20-some­thing who seemed to wel­come the pun­ish­ment he re­ceived on a weekly ba­sis has be­come the 38-year-old poised to set a mark that’s a tes­ta­ment to his dura­bil­ity and his adapt­abil­ity.

When Roeth­lis­berger runs onto the Heinz Field turf Sun­day to lead Pitts­burgh (2-0) against Hous­ton (0-2), it will be his 221st game in the NFL. No Steelers player — not Terry Brad­shaw or Joe Greene or Mel Blount or Jerome Bet­tis or all the rest — has played more games in black-and-gold. Maybe it’s fit­ting that when he takes his first snap, he’ll break a tie with Hall of Fame cen­ter Mike Web­ster for the most ap­pear­ances in fran­chise his­tory.

Roeth­lis­berger cred­its his un­ex­pected longevity on his faith and the fact he plays for one of the most sta­ble teams in pro­fes­sional sports. Oh, and be­ing built like a tight end more than a quar­ter­back helps.

“God made me a big­ger man than most quar­ter­backs,” Roeth­lis­berger said. “So I think I can take it and I’m just en­joy­ing play­ing this game.”

An ap­pre­ci­a­tion re­newed by an un­ex­pected year away from the sport.

Roeth­lis­berger tore three flexor ten­dons in his right el­bow last Septem­ber and didn’t play for 364 days. He could have opted to re­tire with his two Su­per Bowl rings, hang out with his wife Ash­ley and their three chil­dren and let the clock start on his likely Hall of Fame in­duc­tion.

In­stead, he opted for (at least) one more go-round, even if it makes him by far the elder state­men on an of­fense filled with skill po­si­tion play­ers a decade or more younger. When Roeth­lis­berger came on in Week 2 of the 2004 sea­son to re­place an in­jured Tommy Mad­dox, rookie wide re­ceiver Chase Clay­pool was 6. Juju Smith­schus­ter — the long­est-tenured re­ceiver on the team — was 7.

“Ob­vi­ously, he still wants more,” Smith-schus­ter said.

Whether Roeth­lis­berger would give him­self a chance to chase it is an­other mat­ter. He won his first Su­per Bowl in 2006 at 23. Four months later, he broke his jaw and nose when he crashed his mo­tor­cy­cle while not wear­ing a hel­met. He de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the best im­pro­vis­ers in the league, a rep­u­ta­tion that of­ten came at a heavy cost as his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame took shot af­ter shot from op­pos­ing de­fend­ers.

Roeth­lis­berger was sacked an av­er­age of 47 times a sea­son be­tween 200609. Look­ing back, Roeth­lis­berger doesn’t see a spotty of­fen­sive line so much as a quar­ter­back who didn’t know when to throw it away.

“I did take a lot of beat­ing early on,” Roeth­lis­berger said. “A lot of that was my fault.”

A phase Roeth­lis­berger even­tu­ally moved on from thanks in part to the ar­rival of of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Todd Ha­ley in 2012 and the team’s sub­stan­tial in­vest­ment in the group that pro­tects him.

Cen­ter Mau­r­kice Pouncey ar­rived in the first round in 2010. Guard David Decas­tro fol­lowed in the same round two years later. Roeth­lis­berger be­gan throw­ing more than ever and land­ing on the ground less than ever. He has been sacked more than 30 times just once over the last seven years, a span in which he’s won a pair of NFL pass­ing ti­tles while be­ing named to the Pro Bowl four times.

Though the Steelers are off to a solid start, Roeth­lis­berger isn’t ex­actly thrilled with his play even as he’s thrown for five touch­downs against just two in­ter­cep­tions. On Tues­day, he lamented his foot­work. On Wed­nes­day, he didn’t throw but in­stead worked with quar­ter­backs coach Matt Canada on a se­ries of drills de­signed to sharpen his form from the ground up.

“He’s not the old dog that can’t learn new tricks,” Ficht­ner said. “He wants to win. And that’s just the bot­tom line.”

DON WRIGHT / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pitts­burgh Steelers quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger throws a pass against Den­ver on Sun­day in Pitts­burgh.

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