PITTSBURGH - Ben Roethlisberger cast a wary eye upon the dozens of reporters who showed up for his first pregame practice in nine months and questioned aloud, "I thought we'd gotten this out of the way, but obviously not."
No, not yet. Not even close. There's still a step left in what might be termed the rehabilitation of Ben Roethlisberger, the football player.
He still hasn't taken a snap from center in a game that counts, still hasn't thrown a meaningful pass, still hasn't proven he's the player he was before his aberrant behavior led the NFL -- at his own team's urging -- to suspend him for six games, later shortened to four.
Roethlisberger's self-described "anxious, nervous" months of waiting end Sunday, when the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback plays a regular-season game for the first time since Jan. 3. The Cleveland Browns (1-4), who sacked Roethlisberger eight times during a 13-6 upset victory in December that ultimately scuttled Pittsburgh's playoff chances, will be on the opposing sideline, eager to mar the two-time Super Bowl winner's return to the NFL.
Roethlisberger's suspension didn't ruin the Steelers season, as some around the league anticipated; instead, his teammates used the quarterback's absence as a motivator while going 3-1. Their defense is playing much like that of their 2008 Super Bowl-winning team, and their revived running game is one of the NFL's best.
The Steelers proved they could change for the better while Roethlisberger was away. Now he wants to prove he's changed for the better, too.
Teammates say a player who once seemed intent on living up to his "Big Ben" persona is no longer aloof or condescending to some of them. He's been more outgoing and patient with Steelers supporters, especially during a training camp in which fans who once talked of rejecting him chose to embrace him. He also appears to be more accepting of a balanced offense, rather than one that allows him to throw 35 times a game.
"The guys on the team opened their arms and welcomed him back," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We missed him."
Allegations that Roethlisberger sexually assaulted a Georgia college student in March did not result in criminal charges against him, and he has proclaimed his innocence. But there is no question his widely portrayed image of a bar-hopping, immature, pampered, indulgent athlete with a sense of entitlement hurt him and the image-conscious organization he plays for. The job of repairing it is not yet completed.
Roethlisberger was equally embarrassed and humbled by his troubling offseason, one that might have cost him his Steelers career if it weren't for the fact it's difficult to find $102 million franchise quarterbacks.
"At times when things happen in your life it causes you to reassess your approach. I think that's what he's going through," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I still think Ben is Ben. Sometimes when you're faced with adversity, particularly adversity that's created by you, there's an assessment or there's an evaluation of some of the decisions you've made."
While Steelers fans have shown an eagerness to forgive, Roethlisberger also understands he might not get another chance at redemption should he fail again.
"Second chances are an awesome thing and that's all I've asked for," he said. "I want to be a Steeler for life. I love playing for this city and these fans. It's something that's very important to me. I know a lot of people say 'I don't really care about the fans and what people say about me.' Well, I do. I want people to accept me and to embrace me as their quarterback and as a Steeler."
Roethlisberger insists he's not intent upon quickly reshaping an offense that was decidedly unbalanced without him. The Steelers are eighth in rushing but a dead-last 32nd in passing after starting No. 3 quarterback Dennis Dixon and No. 4 Charlie Batch during his absence.
Roethlisberger's return should create more downfield opportunities for wide receiver Mike Wallace, who averages 23.4 yards per catch, and allow tight end Heath Miller to be used more as a receiver than as a blocker. But the Steelers still plan to give plenty of carries to Rashard Mendenhall, who averages 102.8 yards per game.
"The key for me is not try to force anything, and not go out and try to be Superman," Roethlisberger said. "Just go out and play my game."
Roethlisberger's first game back will be Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy's first game, period. With Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme injured, the Browns have little choice but to start a third-round draft pick from Texas who wasn't supposed to get on the field this season.
NFL quarterback debuts don't get much rougher than this, facing the Steelers and James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith in Heinz Field -- and during a week when the Browns were practicing without seven injured regulars. But the Cardinals' cause seemed next-to-hopeless last week, before undrafted rookie quarterback Max Hall managed to beat the Super Bowl champion Saints 30-20,