Ben Roethlisberger, "I'm still here and ready to rock and roll. I feel healthier, better. I feel like I'm in my prime ..."
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger delivered some optimistic opinions for a Steelers team bracing for mass departures with the start of free agency next week.
He's healthy and not overly concerned with the many defections expected when the doors open wide Tuesday for the Steelers' 17 unrestricted free agents.
"There always will be some new guys, there always will be some guys leave," Roethlisberger said in a recent interview. "We never like to see anybody go but we know it's a business and guys have to do what's best for themselves and their families.
"For me, it's about getting better and taking the guys we have here and getting better, taking the new guys who are coming in -- rookies, free agents, whatever it is -- and getting better."
That starts with the quarterback, who missed three games last season with injuries to his arm and chest. The Steelers were 6-3 before Roethlisberger missed those three starts. They went 2-5 the rest of the way, including a 1-3 record upon his return. He did not look like the same quarterback in those games, and two late interceptions on passes he threw toward the sideline cost them in losses to Dallas and Cincinnati.
In overtime Dec. 9 in Dallas, Roethlisberger tried to throw a 10-yard out pass along the right sideline to Mike Wallace. It carried a little behind Wallace, and Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr intercepted it and returned it 36 yards to the Steelers 1 to set up the 27-24 Dallas victory.
The next week at home, Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson intercepted Roethlisberger's sideline pass with 14 seconds left in a tie game and the Bengals turned it into a field goal that won it, 13-10.
Roethlisberger, who was on his way to having one of his best seasons before his injuries, acknowledged for the first time that he did not have the arm strength to make either of those throws after returning from a sprained right shoulder and a dislocated rib.
"Sometimes, certain passes just weren't right. I didn't trust myself to get enough zip on it to throw it out there. I tried to guide it too much instead of just throw it.
"But that's making excuses ... I'll be better, health-wise."
Roethlisberger said he is, in fact, fully recovered from those injuries.
"I feel great. I think I ended the season healthier than I have in a long time. I know that sounds crazy because of my ribs and chest, but I played three or four games at the end of the season and I was actually getting healthy as the season was ending."
Not fully recovered from his injuries, but healthier, he said.
"Not one person in this locker room ends the season 100 percent. I didn't end the season 100 percent but I felt healthier and better than I have in a long time. I'm working out earlier this year. I took one week off, one week. I have no issues."
The prospect of losing Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Rashard Mendenhall and others -- plus the uncertain status of injured tight end Heath Miller -- does not dissuade Roethlisberger from at least sounding as if he is optimistic about 2013 after an 8-8 season.
"You never like to see anybody leave. But I'm pretty sure there's never been in the history of this sport the exact same team come back two years in a row."
When -- it no longer seems "if" is proper -- Wallace signs elsewhere, those Steelers receivers with game experience will include only Antonio Brown, restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.
"We have a great group of guys here and if we happen to lose one or two of them, I have confidence [the front office will] get guys in here who will be ready to compete and play," Roethlisberger said.
He also repeated what general manager Kevin Colbert said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, declaring that the Steelers are not in transition despite their 2012 season and the prospect of losing more starters.
"I don't want to say it's a transition phase because I feel like I'm still here and ready to rock and roll. I feel healthier, better. I feel like I'm in my prime and ready to play great football. And I feel that we've got guys around here who feel the same way," Roethlisberger said.
"I think the frustration from last year will be motivation for guys who are back again."
The Steelers have been discussing the contract situation of James Harrison with his agent, Bill Parise, to try to reduce the linebacker's salary cap hit for 2013.
Harrison, who will be 35 in two months, is scheduled to make salaries of $6.57 million this season and $7,575,000 in 2014. Parise did not say if those discussions include a request by the Steelers for a reduction in salary or a restructured contract that could spread out the salary cap hit this year with an extension neither side would expect to reach.
"We're talking," Parise said. "Both sides want to try to do something. We're trying to find common ground."