It seemed like a small snafu at the time, and it was -- a rookie receiver running a wrong route in practice and causing a miscommunication with the quarterback. But, in many ways, the moment was significant, not just for Ben Roethlisberger, but for the Steelers, as well.
In the second week of training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, rookie receiver Markus Wheaton ran the wrong route, causing Roethlisberger to throw the ball to the spot where Wheaton was supposed to be. As the No. 3 draft choice came back toward the huddle, Roethlisberger barked loud enough for all to hear, "If you don't know the play, just ask."
A feisty Roethlisberger?
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No. Just a new one. A different one.
Kind of what the Steelers had been hoping to see from their quarterback, who is 31 and entering his 10th NFL season.
"He's definitely got a chip on his shoulder," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "Nobody liked the way we came down the stretch last year. He's the quarterback, he's at the controls. He's in a great mental and physical place right now, and he just keeps getting better."
For the first time since he entered the league in 2004, Roethlisberger is now the oldest and most-experienced quarterback on the team. He no longer has Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich around in the meeting room to discuss the nuances of the offense and dissect and understand opposing defenses. They are no longer there on the sideline to discuss what is happening on the field during a game.
Roethlisberger is now the voice of experience, the player who is being asked the questions about the offense, not the player who might be seeking answers. He is the player responsible for making sure the new quarterbacks -- Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones and John Parker Wilson -- know what they're doing and providing them with the right answers about the offense.
It is not by accident.
The Steelers thought it was time to change the dynamic in the quarterback room, time to put Roethlisberger in charge, hoping the move would ultimately force their two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback to immerse himself even more in the playbook and understand the offense.
"It's definitely different," Roethlisberger said. "I wish I knew the offense even better than I do, just because I feel I know my answers will be even more right. I do the best I can to talk with Todd, to know the answers, so I can help these guys because they come to me and ask. And even if they don't come and ask, even in practice, if I see something, I'll come up to them and say, 'Do this,' or 'I'm thinking do this.' It helps to have that growth in this offense."
Exactly what the Steelers had in mind.
"It's going to make him have to stay on his game all the time, because when you're asked questions from other people, giving the right answer is paramount to success," Haley said. "You need to have the right answer."
Before, if Roethlisberger didn't know the answer, it was easy to turn to Batch, 38, who had been with the team since 2002, or Leftwich, 33. Roethlisberger even said he could discuss aspects of the offense with veteran receiver Hines Ward.
But Ward is gone, and the Steelers decided in the offseason to change the makeup of their backup quarterbacks. They elected not to re-sign Batch, who led their second-half comeback victory in Baltimore in 2012; and Leftwich, who had two separate stints with them since 2008.
Instead, they signed Gradkowski, a Dormont native and seven-year NFL veteran, in free agency and drafted Jones in the fourth round in April.
The moves have forced Roethlisberger to be more in command of the offense -- not just on the field, but in the meeting room.
"In the past, it was more discussions: 'Hey Hines, what do you think about this?' " Roethlisberger said. "There was Antwaan [Randle El], Plax [Burress], all those older guys, even Mike Wallace. Now there's still discussion with some of the older guys, but with Wheaton, [David] Paulson, it's hey, this is what I'm expecting you to do, so do this. It's a little less discussion and a little more expectation."
Even coach Mike Tomlin said earlier in training camp that he expects Roethlisberger to be more of a leader this year, the captain at the head of the ship. By thrusting him in that position, Roethlisberger has had to bone up even more on the playbook.
It might not have shown in two preseason games -- the starters have yet to produce a touchdown -- but even Roethlisberger joked, "I'm saving the touchdowns for the regular season."
He was asked if he thought the change was by design.
"Maybe. But my role has grown in other rooms as well. I didn't worry about quarterback because we had guys there. But I'm helping receivers, helping running backs, helping tight ends, and talking to coaches.
"We got a new wide receivers coach, we got new offensive line coach, so I'm going to tell them what I expect, as well, so we can try to work as one.
"We can't just sit here and say, 'OK, they're the coaches and I'm the player.' Hey, 8-8 isn't good enough. Whatever info we can all add, we're going to do it."
As long as the answers are right.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published August 23, 2013 4:00 AM