The physical beating quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has taken on football fields is nothing compared to the pounding his reputation took before the season began. Through it all, he has guided the Steelers to a surprising 10-4 record and a playoff berth with a steady hand, a sturdy disposition and play that has typified his seven-year career with the Steelers.
He also has made strides in reclaiming a reputation that was left in tatters last spring.
"I've definitely seen the change in him for the positive. I saw it a long time ago," said defensive end Brett Keisel, one of the quarterback's closer friends on the team. "I think he just changed his overall outlook on who he wants to be, what he wants to be, where he wants to go and how he wants to do it."
The change came after a thunderbolt from Milledgeville, Ga., in March where a 20-year-old woman first accused him of sexual assault and then declined to pursue it. After a lengthy investigation, Roethlisberger was not charged with a crime. But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season and ordered him to complete a program that included counseling.
Goodell said in training camp that Roethlisberger had gone above and beyond what he asked him to do, and his teammates say they have seen it throughout the year. Roethlisberger's dealings with the media have been the most cordial and relaxed in his pro career, and those who work with Steelers charities say that while he always has been good in that area, he has devoted more time and effort this year without drawing attention to his charitable work.
"Obviously, there's been a lot of scrutiny against him this year," Keisel said. "The best way you can counteract that is to go out and be a better man, be a better teammate, be a better guy in the community and I think he's done all that."
Roethlisberger said he has made a strong effort to turn around his life and reputation, and that he hopes people think better of him now than they did in the spring.
"When everything happened, I wasn't a guy who came out and said that I don't care what people think about me, because you do," he said, sitting in front of his locker Tuesday. "You're a human being; you care what people think. I hope and I think a lot of people really felt that I was genuine in the things I said, because I was. Hopefully, they have forgiven me or they are working toward it.
"We said it wasn't going to happen overnight. I strive every day to be a better person, a better son, everything. That's what I think we all should do."
After his teammates went 3-1 without him, Roethlisberger returned and has played like the same quarterback who became one of the most popular players in Steelers history while helping the team win two Super Bowl titles.
He has a 92.6 passer rating and has thrown for 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also is the team's third-leading rusher with 150 yards, second most of any season only to his 204 yards in 2007.
He has led the team on three winning touchdown drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. And he has taken a pounding as well.
Oakland defensive end Richard Seymour cold-cocked him long after a play in which Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass. He has been hit late and in the head a number of times without a flag being thrown, although Baltimore's Haloti Ngata was later fined $15,000 for a hit Dec. 5 that broke Roethlisberger's nose. He also has been playing with a broken right foot since it was injured Nov. 28 against the Buffalo Bills. The injury was aggravated against the Jets Sunday.
"He's one of the toughest players I've ever seen," receiver Mike Wallace said. "They talk about Michael Vick taking a lot of hits and extra stuff and not getting calls, but he gets the same treatment I think Michael Vick gets. He's just not as fast and I think he takes more pain sometimes. He's so big, they bring him to the ground all kinds of ways and he doesn't complain.
"It's crazy how much he's been through and still been able to play. He got his nose broke, taped it up and went right back in and said nothing about it."
Roethlisberger has been sacked 29 times in 10 games compared to his career high of 50 in 15 games last season. He has been a more effective runner, too; his 6.5-yard average is by far his highest.
"At times I think I've played OK, at times I think I wish I'd have played better," Roethlisberger said. "All things considered so far, hopefully it's just a start."
He also has not missed a snap since returning from his suspension despite the two injuries.
"He's as tough as there is," Keisel said. "He's obviously taken some lumps this year -- he's out there playing with a broken foot, a broken nose. A lot of guys would say 'I'm going to sit this one out.' He shows you how tough he is by playing."
Jonathan Scott will remain the starting left tackle. There was some speculation when Scott was removed from the game for the final drive Sunday and replaced by Trai Essex. Coach Mike Tomlin declined to say on Monday who would start. Scott, who had a "stinger" at the time, is not on the injury list this week. ... Aaron Smith, who began lifting weights two weeks ago and was fitted with what he called an elbow brace this week, has no idea when he might resume practicing. He has been out since surgery to repair his triceps, torn Oct. 24. "You have another scan and see how things are healing and let the doctors make the choices," Smith said. ... Troy Polamalu did not practice Tuesday and is not likely to play Thursday night, missing his second consecutive game.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published December 22, 2010 5:00 AM