PITTSBURGH (AP) — The pain was familiar to Ben Roethlisberger.
And the best part about how his 38-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback’s body felt following his first game in 364 days might have been the fact none of the pain originated from his surgically repaired right elbow.
Roethlisberger is hopeful the saga of his extended comeback came to an end in northern New Jersey last Monday, when he tossed three touchdowns in a relatively solid and mistake-free 26-16 victory over the New York Giants.
From here on out, he expects the focus to be on football, though that may be impossible heading into Pittsburgh’s home opener against Denver (0-1) on Sunday.
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Rather than strictly preparing for the Broncos, Roethlisberger and the organization found itself spending a portion of the week facing questions about team unity after left tackle Alejandro Villanueva chose to honor a fallen US Army veteran on the back of his helmet rather than a Black Pittsburgh teenager killed by a white East Pittsburgh police officer in 2018, as the rest of the team did in New York. It was a move that caught Roethlisberger and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward — both longtime captains — off guard.
It got to the point that Steelers president Art Rooney II issued a statement saying he was “proud” of the efforts of the players to “bring awareness and changes to combat racism and social injustice” while acknowledging “we understand that individually we may say or do things that are not universally accepted.”
Denver’s issues are more muted by comparison. The Broncos let a winnable game against Tennessee slip away on Monday night when the Titans drove down the field late to pull out a 16-14 victory.
Still, there were tangible signs of things to get excited about as Denver hopes to gain traction in head coach Vic Fangio’s second season.
Quarterback Drew Lock completed 22 of 33 passes for 216 yards with a touchdown and zero interceptions. The 23-year-old has also proven difficult to take down. He’s been sacked just five times in six career starts and he’ll need to escape Pittsburgh’s fierce pass rush — and do it while taking care of the ball — if the Broncos want to extend their recent mastery over the Steelers. Denver has won four of the past five meetings with a list of victorious quarterbacks that includes Tim Tebow and Case Keenum.
Lock does have one thing in his favor: Hall of Fame offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The popular Munchak served in the same capacity for the Steelers from 2014-18 before leaving for Denver to be closer to his family. Heyward called Munchak “the ultimate spy.”
“Hopefully we can prove the point that we have a great O-line while blocking those guys up to give me time back there,” Lock said. “If that’s what we do, then we’re going to be a good football team.”
A victory at an empty Heinz Field would be a good starting point.
JEUDY, JEUDY: First-round pick Jerry Jeudy tied Malcom Butler in knots and repeatedly gained separation in the opener. He caught four passes for 56 yards but the only thing he’ll remember from his debut is the pair of costly drops, one of which could have helped Denver salt away the win.
“Those two drops will probably help me not drop passes for the whole season,” said Jeudy, the 15th overall pick out of Alabama, where he was renowned as much for his good hands as his quick feet and crisp route-running.
BENNY SNELL FOOTBALL: Steelers running back Benny Snell Jr. arrived in Pittsburgh as a fourth-round pick in 2019 with a chip on his shoulder. That chip would sometimes grate in practice against a veteran defensive line. Snell has been decidedly quieter entering his second season, preferring to let his pads do the talking. They spoke loudly while he ran for a career-high 113 yards against the Giants after starter James Conner went down with an ankle injury. Conner’s status is uncertain, though Snell figures to have earned more playing time regardless.
TIME KEEPS SLIPPING: Fangio acknowledged 24 hours after the Broncos’ 16-14 loss to the Titans that he blew it by not calling a timeout in the closing seconds and preserving as much time as possible for his young, inexperienced offense. Fangio called it a one-off, so he’s not planning on changing procedure, however.
Last year, Fangio had an analytics expert in his ear in end-of-game situations but after a shakeup in that department this offseason, Fangio was on his own. He said his coaches can always chime in, but it’s apparent none of them did as the Broncos saved all three of their timeouts to use after Tennessee went ahead with 17 seconds left.
LINE SHUFFLE: Steelers right tackle Zach Banner’s transformation from shaggy prospect to NFL starter hit a massive bump when he tore the ACL in his right knee against the Giants, ending his season after less than four quarters. Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick in 2018, will take over for Banner.
“We will miss him, but we also have confidence that Chuks will do the job,” Roethlisberger said. “It was a close battle I think from what I heard from Coach Tomlin. We will need Chuks to step up who has playing experience. We will expect him to great things.”
Rookie Kevin Dotson could make his first NFL start at guard with Pro Bowler David DeCastro dealing with a knee issue and veteran Stefen Wisniewski recovering from a chest injury.
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.
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