PITTSBURGH -- In his first game in a new offensive system, Ben Roethlisberger pulled out a few old tricks in his preseason debut Saturday night.
The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback turned in a vintage performance in three series against the Detroit Lions on Saturday night, completing 8 of 10 attempts for 137 yards and two touchdowns en route to a perfect passer rating and the Steelers' 26-20 win.
It was a small sample size, but Saturday night gave the Steelers the first assurances that a partnership between Roethlisberger and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada can work.
"I thought he did a nice job," coach Mike Tomlin said of Roethlisberger. "I thought we got what we wanted to get accomplished. Getting familiar with administering the offense in a stadium-like circumstance. I thought he did a great job of communicating. He made good and fluid decisions and we were able to move the ball."
Playing like a man with something to prove, Roethlisberger appeared like he sought to demonstrate his arm strength, heavily scrutinized after the 2019 elbow surgery, is back to normal after a 2020 campaign characterized by short throws.
"My arm feels pretty good compared to last year," Roethlisberger said. "I felt good, but I didn't know how it should feel. It feels pretty good right now."
He mostly proved that point, averaging 13.7 yards per attempt with some well-thrown mid-range balls. Others, though, like a 43-yard pass to Diontae Johnson were underthrown. Still, the 39-year-old showed he wasn't afraid to air it out and stretch the field -- and he was mostly successful doing it. The 43-yard pass traveled 38.8 air yards, Roethlisberger's longest completion in terms of air yards since the 2018 Week 13 game against the Chargers, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
"I didn't like the throw," Roethlisberger said. "I think I put too much air on it. Luckily for me, he's a heck of a football player and he made a play for me."
Roethlisberger turned back the clock on the first drive, reminding defenses he can still be the fleet-footed signal caller who can dance away from pressure. He made mobility a point of emphasis in his offseason workouts, and on third-and-4, he stepped up in the pocket before spinning out to elude a sack, even pump faking as he ducked out of the pressure, and fired off a pass that sailed about 40 yards in the air to Eric Ebron on the sideline. The tight end couldn't come down with the combat catch, dropping it under pressure, and the Steelers had to punt the ball away on Roethlisberger's first series in 2021.
"They did a good job jumping our first three options," Roethlisberger said. "The line did a good job of keeping them off me. I was getting ready to throw a scramble to Diontae and [JuJu Smith-Schuster] turned it up at the last minute. That's what the pump was. I really thought that all in all the guys did a good job of protecting me and not making me run around too much."
After that, though, Roethlisberger was perfect on third down, completing each of his next four attempts for 71 yards, including two touchdowns to rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. Roethlisberger hit Johnson for the 43-yard completion on his second drive and followed it up with an 11-yard completion to Smith-Schuster on the next third down.
Smith-Schuster looked every part of the reliable third-down weapon, running through contact to pick up the extra yards. Two plays later, Roethlisberger pulled out an old favorite with a pump fake that even fooled television camera operators at Heinz Field, paving the way for Freiermuth to find an opening in the end zone.
"The pump fake wasn't an intentional pump fake," Roethlisberger said. "I was going to throw it, but he was still leaning on the guy, so I wasn't quite ready."
Roethlisberger rifled the pass to the rookie for each of their first scores in the preseason. The connection continued to be a strong one as Roethlisberger found Freiermuth again on the next series, capping a four-play scoring drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to the Penn State product.
"I've thrown that ball to him dozens of times in practice," Roethlisberger said of the first touchdown pass to Freiermuth. "He was ready for it, and he made the rest happen. I'd like to give him more credit, too, probably three or four times, he hasn't gotten his feet in. Maybe one in, and he had one this last week, but there he kept both in and you can tell he's working on his craft."
That score was set up by Roethlisberger hitting rookie running back Najee Harris on a crossing route off a play-action pass that went for a massive 46-yard gain up the sideline.
"When Ben's in the game, you feel the presence of how persistent you need to be with things," Harris said. "It's like that in practice, too. Having Ben back for the first couple drives, it's always good to have him back in the mix."
By the time Roethlisberger ceded control of the defense to Mason Rudolph, the Steelers had a 14-0 lead on the Lions, and Roethlisberger had the all-important dry run with Canada completed before the regular season.
"No real play clock issues," Roethlisberger said. "I took a timeout once, not because of a play clock issue, but because the play we called, I think their defense, we wouldn't have had anything. So took a timeout for that reason.
"But all in all, I felt like I had plenty of time when we broke the huddle. I thought it went well. I wish sometimes our defense would give us more time on the sideline so I can communicate through all the pictures. But it's a good problem to have."