PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald watched Ben Roethlisberger launch a pass off his back foot and hit Diontae Johnson across the field as the second-year receiver ran through the end zone to the back pylon.
The throw, which happened at a small group workout over the summer, left McDonald dumbfounded and giddy.
“Golly! He is really, he is really back,” McDonald remembers thinking in the moment. “This is crazy and awesome to see.”
And yes, he really said, “Golly!”
It’s a feeling that’s reverberated through the Steelers offense as they’ve witnessed the 38-year-old quarterback’s return from season-ending surgery to reattach three flexor tendons in his elbow. It’s not an understatement to say Roethlisberger’s presence can — and will — dictate their season.
“When you have a quarterback step in that you’re not used to working with, Mason [Rudolph] and Duck [Devlin Hodges] last year interchangeably, there’s just timing,” McDonald said. “There are things that you normally don’t have to focus on with Ben, such as camaraderie, what to expect here in communications and routes. It all changes.
“Every quarterback has their different styles. With Ben back, obviously, it’s going to be the biggest point of emphasis for our offense moving forward this season. I’m not afraid to say as he goes, we all go.”
Roethlisberger gives the Steelers almost two decades of experience and all of the intangibles that come with it. He also brings a new version of himself, one that could only come from the unceremonious end to his 2019 season.
“The way he attacks the day is just different than I’ve seen him since I got here in 2017,” McDonald said. “I’m loving the leadership from him. I’m loving just that hunger and that fire. I think you will notice that trickle down to the entire offense as you see us getting rocking and rolling here. … guys are just like flocking to him. The hunger is real from Ben.”
In the first three training camp practices open to media — two of them in full pads — Roethlisberger looked energized, and his passes were crisp. His spiral, though not as tight as coach Mike Tomlin would like, didn’t appear drastically altered.
On Wednesday, Roethlisberger led the team in a two-minute drill, driving 57 yards for a touchdown. In another team period that stressed a hurry-up offense, Roethlisberger completed all of his passes, including a 3-yard touchdown strike to Ryan Switzer as he eluded pressure from T.J. Watt. Earlier in the drive, Roethlisberger also converted a third-and-10 with a pass to James Conner and a third-and-12 with another to Switzer.
“Ben was slinging it today,” Switzer said after Wednesday’s practice. “You can really see it in film when you’re watching it because you get to see a couple of different angles of the ball and the velocity. You see things on the field that you’re like … hmm. Then, you go and watch it on the film, and that just validates that was a ball.”
In pads Monday and Tuesday, Roethlisberger demonstrated his connection with JuJu Smith-Schuster on a handful of completions, and he also hit Switzer for another touchdown, this one about 10 yards out near the end of the 90-minute practice. He also continued to work on his timing with receivers such as rookie Chase Claypool and Johnson.
“He’s different this year from what I’ve seen last year,” Johnson said. “He’s more excited. He’s like anxious to get on the field and want to play with us. That makes you want to play for him even more. That’s one of the things I’ve been seeing from him, him engaging with me more than he did last year because I was a rookie. He wasn’t talking to me like that.
“Now, just being able to talk to him and have that connection, it’s just going to keep building. I’m trying to help him win a championship.”
Roethlisberger, who has won two Super Bowls, hopes he has at least one more left in his career.
“I’m not saying that I have 10 years left in me, but I definitely feel like I’ve got some really good years in me,” Roethlisberger said. “That was definitely a motivating factor, was coming back and showing I still have it in the tank. I still have a lot to give this team. I still have a lot to give to fans. I still want to win Lombardis. I say that with a plural on the end.”
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A complete assessment of his recovery can’t happen until Roethlisberger steps foot on the field at MetLife Stadium in Week 1 on Sept. 14 to face the New York Giants. But early returns of his camp performance and evaluation from those who spent the most time with him during rehab paint the picture of a quarterback more driven than ever in his 17-year NFL career.
“It was inspiring to see someone with his credentials, with his success, push forward like he did,” said Switzer, who worked with Roethlisberger at the quarterback’s home in the offseason. “It would have been really easy for someone who has it all, who has the trophies, who has the money, everything, to take a backseat and let something like that beat them, but he didn’t.
“I was fortunate enough to be with him throughout his rehab process and see how hungry he was, see how detail-oriented he was, to see how focused he was. It was just something really unique to be a part of.”
After a couple months of individual work at his home and one-on-one work with Switzer, Roethlisberger began gathering his teammates at football fields around the area, including at Quaker Valley High School and Robert Morris. There, McDonald got an early glimpse of Roethlisberger’s repaired elbow — and more notably, a fire that came from being sidelined for the longest stretch in his career.
“I know how frustrated he was last year,” said McDonald, who is one of Roethlisberger’s closest friends on the team and has a locker next to him at the team’s south-side facility. “I know how badly it killed him to know that the thing that was bothering him in the Seattle game was as bad as it ended up being and that it required surgery and stuff. You just think about it. That’s months and months and months of this piled up energy, anxiety, stress, frustration, everything.
“He spent the entire offseason getting to a point to where he was starting to throw. Then, all of a sudden, he’s just like this cannon, ready to explode, ready to go and shoot.”
McDonald remembers leaning over to one of his new teammates, tight end Eric Ebron, during one of the offseason workouts and noting how much fun it was to see Roethlisberger full of energy.
“He’s pushing his arm to the limits, really testing to see what it can do and obviously having a fun time because everything was on a positive note that day,” McDonald said. “It was really cool to see.”