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Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger enter 2021 season in unfamiliar under-the-radar position

PITTSBURGH -- It was two hours before practice was to start, and Ben Roethlisberger was sitting in the sun overlooking Heinz Field, the light catching just a bit of gray in his beard. At 39 and entering his 18th season, Roethlisberger is the sturdy personification of Steelers permanence, like the sculpture of Art Rooney that stands guard at a stadium entrance, and like the fact that the Steelers are such a preeminent part of the city's psyche that their six Super Bowl rings are used to illustrate proper social distancing at the airport, while fans tailgate -- grills included -- before watching a mid-summer practice.

But like the Steelers themselves, Roethlisberger is in transition. He is learning a new offense and adjusting to a rebuilt offensive line, and he talks openly about contemplating retirement. Roethlisberger is at ease, but his twilight, combined with the collapse that ended the 2020 season, has put the Steelers in an unfamiliar spot -- slightly off the radar, with nobody quite sure what to expect this season from one of the NFL's most stable and storied teams.

"Let's keep it that way," Roethlisberger said. "Let's keep people guessing. It's fine."

Not so fine was last year's result. The Steelers raced to an 11-0 start and then encountered a tsunami of problems: significant injuries on their stellar defense, a COVID-19-jumbled schedule that had them play three games in 12 December days, and a wildly unbalanced offense, with the Steelers leading the league in pass attempts but finishing last in rushing yards. The first two were bad luck. The third was simply bad form. A thrashing by the Cleveland Browns in a wild-card game -- it was 28-0 after the first quarter -- was the starting gun to rethink the offense.

"I think last year we got too comfortable with what we were so used to doing in the first half of our season, and then in the second half, teams started to figure us out," said receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. "I think what we have now will help us a lot."

That is expected to be an offense with a lot more motion -- last season, according to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers used pre-snap motion at the 23rd-highest rate in the NFL. Out went coordinator Randy Fichtner, and up went Matt Canada, who, until he was the Steelers' quarterbacks coach in 2020, had spent his entire career in the college game, where he used pre-snap motion liberally.

The offensive line, a premier one in its prime, got an extreme makeover, with tackle Alejandro Villanueva, guard David DeCastro and Roethlisberger favorite, center Maurkice Pouncey, all gone, the latter two to retirement. The Steelers used third- and fourth-round picks on linemen and brought in veterans from free agency. And with their first-round draft pick, the Steelers selected running back Najee Harris. The intent is clear from practice and from the Hall of Fame game: The Steelers are going to run the ball, yes -- and, they hope, not be so predictable.

"I just think the results spoke for themselves," head coach Mike Tomlin said after practice last weekend. "We were last in the league in rushing. That's not how we get down, so a change is required.

"The mandate is to score, and in order to score, you have to be balanced," Tomlin continued. "You've got to win possession downs, and those possession downs have to be manageable. Those possession downs are not going to manageable unless you run the ball. Running the ball is just a component of things that allow us to be successful."

Roethlisberger spent most of the offseason learning the new verbiage and trying to get used to his new line, a task that even Smith-Schuster says is "very tough."

Roethlisberger admits adjusting to the new line is a big transition for him.

"I think they understand they've got an old man back there, so they have to block a little harder, a little more," Roethlisberger said. "They also hear and read all the negativity. It's all about them and they're too young, rookies, no experience. I hope the chip on their shoulder will lift them up."

Considering all the changes and challenges, Roethlisberger is noticeably relaxed and in good spirits, laughing at the fascination with his weight loss -- he did nothing new, he said, same diet and offseason program as he has had for five or six years -- and with his future. Tomlin said Roethlisberger was definitive when he told him soon after the 2020 season ended that he wanted to play in 2021, so Tomlin spent no more time thinking about it.

Practically everyone else did. Roethlisberger's contract expires after this season, but neither he nor the Steelers has said this will be his final year. Roethlisberger knows the end is in sight, of course, but as this season approaches, he also seems to be trying to live in the moment and not dwell on whether this is his swan song. He feels good -- he hasn't been hit yet, he admits -- and his arm, surgically repaired in 2019, feels great after he returned to his routine of little offseason throwing. The shape of this season will be determined in large part by whether Roethlisberger is refreshed by all the changes around him or whether the lack of familiarity will be a burden the Steelers can't overcome, particularly because they face the league's most difficult schedule, based on last season's results.

"Change isn't always bad," Roethlisberger said. "I'm communicating as much as I can when I have questions. I think the hardest part is when guys come to me with a question and I'm not 100 percent -- 'I don't have a great answer for you, but I don't want to give you a wrong answer' -- to me, that's been the toughest part so far, not feeling super confident giving an answer."

Bill Parcells used to say that if you're thinking about retirement, you're already retired. Roethlisberger does not bear that out -- he is candid about the decision that looms ahead of him, but clearly still excited to play. Asked what kind of markers he will look for to know when it is time to walk away, Roethlisberger said he doesn't know yet, except that he feels he can still play at a high level. The 2020 regular season supports that assertion -- he had 33 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions. The playoff loss, though, raised questions -- he threw for 501 yards and four touchdowns, but also four interceptions. Still, he is the last man standing from the storied trio of quarterbacks drafted in 2004 that also included Philip Rivers and Eli Manning, and, considering his physical brand of play, his longevity is also a testament to his toughness.

"It's one year at a time," he said. "I can answer that better when the season ends. But my traditional thing had been praying and talking to my wife and family and friends. Lucky for me, this is the beginning of the season, not the end, so I have a lot of time to think about it. I don't like to look forward. People ask, what are you going to do next year? Well, why would I look to next year when I have it right here in front of me? I just think if you look past it, you're going to miss what's in front of you. I don't want to miss this, because I'm enjoying it."

That's understandable. After all, the Steelers have never had a losing season with Roethlisberger.

But if his career is to end with a victory lap -- that is, if it is even to end -- Roethlisberger, who won two Super Bowls in his first five seasons, and the Steelers will have to do something they have rarely had to do before: surprise people.

"It's kind of good that we're not on the radar," Smith-Schuster said. "Possibly be underdogs? I know we're never underdogs. But it's always nice to be underdogs and then come out on top."

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