Ben Roethlisberger was on his way to work this week when he felt a unusual level of nervousness. While he already started in 15 season-openers, Monday night’s road game against the Giants will be Big Ben’s first game since undergoing season-ending elbow surgery last September.
Roethlisberger, whose conditioning and overall readiness for the season was well documented during training camp, admitted to feeling nervous heading into his 17th season.
“You always have a little bit of jitters and nervousness for the first game, but the way I feel now is more than I’ve felt in a very long time,” Roethlisberger said during a virtual meeting with the media on Wednesday. “I’m sure it’s only going to intensify as the week goes on. And then, Monday night, I’m sure I’m going to be shaking like a leaf. It’s one of those things where you get out there and hopefully it all comes back to me really quick. There’s going to be rust, there’s no doubt about it, but hopefully, we can get it knocked off sooner rather than later.
“I think that’s what makes it fun. If it wasn’t nervous and I didn’t have that anxiousness, then I think that you shouldn’t be out there. There’s not a love for the game if you don’t have that. Since I have those nerves already, it just shows that I still love this game, I’m still passionate for it, and I want to go out and win for my teammates and the fans and the city.”
Some of Big Ben’s nervousness is attributed to the unusual circumstances surrounding this season-opener. Instead of facing a raucous MetLife Stadium crowd, the Steelers and Giants will play inside a mostly empty stadium. There will be fan noise pumped into the stadium, however, which may create a new set of challenges for both teams.
“We’ve talked about a lot of different scenarios, even as much as giving multiple calls at a time,” Roethlisberger said when asked how the Steelers will call plays if the Giants’ defense can hear their huddle. “I think the crowd noise is going to be just loud enough where they can’t hear you in the huddle. Hopefully, we can communicate without giving things away. It’s going to be tricky though.”
Another element of surprise is the Giants’ defense, which will be led by new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. Without having preseason film of New York’s defense to look at, Roethlisberger said that the Steelers have instead watched film from some of Graham’s previous stops.
“We’ve watched a lot of different film,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t know the last time we’ve watched so many different teams, from Patriots to Giants to Dolphins, some Packers stuff. We’ve watched a lot of different things … We don’t really know, so we’ve got to be able to have a plan, and then work that plan and then plan for the unexpected. There’s going to have to be a lot of sideline adjustments going on, and I like the fact that we’re a veteran enough team that I hope we can make those adjustments.
“We can plan for things, but until you get out there, you don’t know what you’re going to see.”
While the Giants’ defense will look vastly different from the one that took the field in 2019, the Steelers’ offense will also have a different look to it in 2020. This offseason, Pittsburgh brought in Matt Canada, formerly an offensive assistant at Pitt, LSU and Maryland, to be the team’s new quarterbacks coach. Canada has added some new wrinkles into the Steelers’ offense that includes more motion and jet sweeps.
“It’s definitely different for a player like myself who has been in the NFL for so long because it does have some college feel to it,” Roethlisberger said of the things Canada has integrated into the offense. “It’s taken some getting used to. I’ve asked the linemen and our defense kind of what it does for them, and it definitely throws the defense into a little bit of a tizzy when you see the motion [and] you’re not sure who is getting the ball. And it helps the linemen block sometimes, too, because it helps declare defenses.
“This offense will have (Canada’s) fingerprints all over it. You’ll see some stuff on Monday night, I’m pretty sure, with those motions, so hopefully we can be successful with it.”
Pittsburgh’s offense is also expected to include more two tight ends sets Vance McDonald and offseason acquisition Eric Ebron. A Pro Bowler in 2018, Ebron caught 13 touchdowns from Andrew Luck that season. That was the same season that McDonald, who was traded from San Francisco to Pittsburgh just before the start of the 2017 season, set career highs in receptions (50) and receiving yards (610).
“I think they’re well-rounded tight ends that take pride in kind of everything we ask them to do,” Roethlisberger said of Ebron and McDonald. “We’re hoping that they can create matchup problems at times, and we hope we can get them down the field at times. I think there’s a lot of things we can do, and I think we’re still scratching the surface with these two tight end sets.”
Roethlisberger, who said that he is looking forward to throwing to second year receiver Diontae Johnson in a regular season game for the first time, also said that getting relaxed early will be one of his initial focuses on Monday night. He added that he is confident in whoever is starting at right guard if David DeCastro’s lower body injury keeps him on the sideline. Veteran Stefen Wisniewski is expected to replace DeCastro if he is indeed inactive for Monday’s game.
“It’s going to be on me to get myself under control and then, help young guys as we go,” Roethlisberger said. “Just because we’ve got a really good veteran group, we can help each other out in that area. My comfort is going to come from the guys in front of me. And we’re all going to help each other out. Guys are going to have to make plays for me, I’m going to have to make plays for guys. That’s why this is the ultimate team sport.”