PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger learned this during his four-week suspension: He's a lousy spectator.
The Steelers discovered something themselves while playing a month without their franchise quarterback: They're 3-1, but they're a lot better team with him.
Roethlisberger returned to the Steelers on Monday, exchanging hugs and smiles with his teammates and team employees. While they don't play again until Oct. 17 against Cleveland, he quickly settled back into a routine — offensive coordinator Bruce Arians had drawn-up plays waiting for him to review.
"I couldn't wait to get here," Roethlisberger said.
No doubt that paperwork included a lot of pass plays. While the Steelers were a half-minute away from going 4-0 before losing to Baltimore 17-14 on Sunday, their offense wasn't the same without the two-time Super Bowl winner.
The Steelers are a much-improved No. 7 in rushing (133.5 yards per game), but they're only 30th in passing yardage — and they're gaining only 2.5 yards per game more passing than rushing. They're throwing for about 200 yards per game fewer than NFL-leading Denver.
"I've been saying for years now that I think we need to be a balanced team," said Roethlisberger, who threw for a team-record 4,328 yards last season. "So I'm not trying to throw the ball 60-70 times a game. Obviously, as a quarterback, you would like that. But if we're balanced and run and throw and do the things that we need to do effectively, we can be a dangerous football team."
Roethlisberger gained an extra week of practice when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell trimmed his suspension from six games to four. He'll practice for three days starting Tuesday, followed by a full pregame work week.
Still, he wishes there was a game this weekend. He never got comfortable watching games at home — he'd stand one minute, sit down the next and pace for a few more.
"I have no fingernails left," he said. "It was hard, it really was, to watch them at home. I was on the edge of my chair, trying to keep busy. It was tough, but it was fun watching them win."
During his suspension, Roethlisberger worked almost daily with his personal quarterbacks coach, George Whitfield, on his footwork, timing and throwing. He also threw more than he normally does during a practice week.
"I'm not worried about my arm. My arm is ready," he said. "The biggest thing is to refresh my mind with the offense and getting timing down with these guys."
No doubt Roethlisberger is relieved the Steelers are 3-1, not 1-3. Instead of being asked to save their season, he's being asked merely to keep it going.
"I think there's a lot of great chemistry on this football team right now," Roethlisberger said. "They're playing great football, offense, defense and special teams. I'm not trying to come in here and be anything more than what I am, just trying to be a teammate and do whatever I can to help this team win football games."
He insisted he's not disappointed at not being voted a team captain for a third consecutive season, suggesting it would have been difficult to choose someone who missed four games.
Defensive end Brett Keisel, one of Roethlisberger's best friends on the team, thinks the quarterback will be a "better person" for being suspended. Roethlisberger chose not to discuss in detail how the ban affected him as a person, saying it mostly made him realize how much he misses the day-to-day routine of football.
"I think it takes you back to your roots," he said. "It doesn't make you a new person as much as it takes you back to the way you want to be and how you were raised to be."
Roethlisberger was accused of, but not charged with, sexually assaulting a Georgia college student following a night of drinking in a college bar March 5. Despite not being charged, he was suspended under the NFL's personal conduct policy.
Roethlisberger isn't certain how he'll be received during his first regular-season home game in 10 months. He was greeted enthusiastically during training camp and the preseason, an indication fans are focusing more on the season than the misdeeds of seven months ago.
"When I saw people out in public, it's been a lot of warm embraces," Roethlisberger said. "It was a lot of 'Can't wait to get you back, keep your head up.' There's been a lot of very positive feedback from the fans. So I hope they'll be some encouraging cheers and some good things. I hope."