Mike Tomlin believes Steelers fans will greet Ben Roethlisberger kindly Sunday at Heinz Field. The coach, though, will not say if he will include his quarterback as part of the pregame introductions that traditionally take place at home games.
"I expect him to get a warm reception. I really do," Tomlin said during his news conference Tuesday. "I really think that's the nature of Steelers Nation. I know we're excited about having him back. I know he's excited about getting back with his teammates and performing for our fans at Heinz Field."
Roethlisberger will start at quarterback against the Cleveland Browns, his first appearance of the 2010 regular season after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
The Steelers' starting defense was individually introduced for the first two regular-season games at home, but Tomlin would not say whether the offense or defense would have the honor Sunday against the Browns.
"I haven't decided who's returning kicks, so you know I don't care about who we're introducing," Tomlin said.
Roethlisberger has heard nary a discouraging word publicly since he first took the field at training camp July 31, nor in either of the two home preseason games. He did not start in the first preseason game, but the crowd at Heinz Field applauded him when he ran onto the field before the game.
The only noticeable negative reaction came in Denver Aug. 29, when the home crowd booed when Roethlisberger took the field with the offense for the first time.
The virtually one-sided feedback to Roethlisberger by fans in training camp and in preseason games contrasted with comments made by fans in the days and weeks after Roethlisberger was investigated in Milledgeville, Ga., when a college student claimed he sexually assaulted her in the early morning of March 5. Authorities did not charge him with a crime but did scold him for his actions.
The reaction was mixed and at times polarizing among Steelers fans; all anyone had to see were the stream of Roethlisberger jerseys mailed back to the Steelers in protest and the letters and e-mails sent to them and to the news media in Pittsburgh.
Sunday, though, should be the final step in Roethlisberger's comeback trail, and Tomlin said it matters that he receives that warm welcome he expects from the home crowd.
"Of course it matters. We're a professional sport. We get so much energy off our fans. We work hard to entertain and please them. They really kind of make us go."
The Steelers are 10-1 against Cleveland with Roethlisberger at quarterback. Their only loss came Dec. 10 in Cleveland, 13-6. Tomlin expects Roethlisberger's return to provide a morale boost for his team, which won three of the first four games without him.
"He always does because he's a ridiculous competitor. When he has an opportunity to compete, you feel him in the room, or in the stadium. It's one of the interesting attributes about him as a player and a person. When faced with adversity, when given an opportunity to compete, man he does. I think guys feed off of that."
Tomlin was asked at his news conference if there was fear that Roethlisberger might try to do too much in his first game back.
"I'm sure there'll be some anxieties, some excitement, some nervousness that comes with playing after an extended period of time off," Tomlin said. "I'm sure he'll quickly kind of get through that as he warms up and gets his competitive juices flowing. All of those are interesting and fun things to kind of be a part of. It really is. We're excited about the opportunity we have this weekend."
Like fellow wide receiver Mike Wallace last year, Emmanuel Sanders was drafted in the third round and given a chance to become No. 3 at that position with the Steelers.
Not only did they give that job to veteran Antwaan Randle El, but after dressing Sanders for the opener, he has not been in uniform the past three games. Rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown took his spot, mostly as a kickoff returner.
That could change this week. Tomlin said he will consider using Sanders as a kickoff- and punt-returner against the Browns. Since Brown has done a good job returning kickoffs -- he ran one back for an 89-yard touchdown -- it is a sign the Steelers want to get the more-polished Sanders into the game at wide receiver to add speed to complement Wallace.
Even though Randle El has caught a 34-yard pass, his average on six receptions is 12 yards. Wallace has a 23.4-yard average on nine receptions and Hines Ward 13.8 with a team-leading 12 receptions.
Tomlin did not come right out and say it, but he considers the Browns the best 1-4 team in football.
"They're a 1-4 football team, yes, but they probably played the toughest schedule to this point in the NFL, when you look at the games they played, the teams they played."
Tomlin then took the time to run down Cleveland's roster, naming 18 individual players and making them sound as if they were the 1964 Browns, who won the last championship of any pro teams in the city.
One position he did not mention was quarterback. The Browns have a problem at quarterback and signed Brett Ratliff Tuesday. He has bounced around on practice squads since 2007 but did serve as a third-string quarterback for Cleveland last season. He has never played in a game.
Cleveland's top two quarterbacks, Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, have high ankle sprains. The Browns are expected to start rookie Colt McCoy Sunday, according to the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. It would be his first appearance.
Tomlin said he has "no idea" who the Browns might play Sunday.
"And I'm really not overly concerned with it. Those are their issues, like our quarterback issues have been ours. They're a professional football team. I'm sure whoever they put in there is going to be capable. We're going to have to respect them whether it's Seneca Wallace or Delhomme or Colt McCoy for that matter, or Josh Cribbs. They're going to snap it to someone and we have to be prepared to stop them."