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UFC Fight Island viewers guide: Moraes-Sandhagen main event to prove bantamweights are must-see

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You might not think so while watching a particularly brutal fight, but MMA is a pretty forgiving sport.

Barely 16 months ago, Marlon Moraes was knocked out by Henry Cejudo in his bid to become UFC men’s bantamweight champion. Moraes later suffered a different sort of indignity, defeating Jose Aldo in December but then seeing Aldo, not him, get booked against Petr Yan in a July fight for the then-vacant 135-pound title.

Cory Sandhagen has an even fresher reminder of how quickly things can fall apart. His No. 1 contender showdown with Aljamain Sterling in June had barely got started before Sandhagen found himself trapped in a chokehold. He ended up seeing his big opportunity evaporate in less than a minute and a half.

But here come Moraes and Sandhagen again, right back under the spotlight. They meet on Saturday night in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, with the evening of fisticuffs being broadcast from “Fight Island” on ESPN+ (8 p.m. ET main card, prelims at 5 p.m.). The winner will surge back into the title mix at 135 pounds.

It’s good to see that these two have not been derailed by one slip-up, because both have been on otherwise strong runs.

Moraes (23-6-1, 5-2 in the UFC) was on a four-fight winning streak before succumbing to Cejudo, and among his three finishes during that spell was a 2017 knockout of Sterling, who now is the presumed No. 1 contender. Could a strong performance on Saturday enable the 32-year-old former WSOF titleholder from Brazil to leapfrog his way into a championship challenge?

Sandhagen (12-2, 5-1 UFC), who is 28 and fights out of Aurora, Colorado, had won seven straight prior to the loss to Sterling. He likely needs more than a win this weekend to earn a shot at gold, but his date inside the cage with Moraes sure can serve as a solid building block. And future implications aside, Sandhagen is not taking for granted his first UFC main event opportunity.

“When I was signing the [event] posters earlier, and I was signing on my own face,” he told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani this week, “that was a really cool moment.”

This fight promises to deliver plenty of cool moments for the fans as well. Moraes, who is No. 2 in the ESPN men’s bantamweight rankings, has 10 knockouts and six submissions over his career, and the KOs always come early. The only one that didn’t happen in the first round came just 38 seconds into the second.

As for the sixth-ranked Sandhagen, he scored finishes in his first three UFC fights. At 5-foot-11, tall for a bantamweight, he’ll have a big reach advantage, and between that and his deft footwork, Sandhagen has shown adeptness at hitting while not being hit. Let’s see how he fares against Moraes’ power out of the gate.

And then let’s see what the UFC does with the winner.

By the numbers

6.49: Strikes landed per minute in the UFC by Sandhagen, the best average among active bantamweights.

0.93: Knockdowns per minute in the UFC by Moraes, the third-highest rate among active 135-pounders with at least five fights, behind only ex-champion Cody Garbrandt (1.58) and current champ Petr Yan (1.3).

8:12: Average UFC fight time for Sandhagen, the fifth shortest among active bantamweights.

5: Victories for Moraes since his UFC debut in 2017, tying him with Pedro Munhoz for the fourth most in the division during that span. Yan and Marlon Vera lead the way with seven wins, one more than Aljamain Sterling.

23: Combined finishes by the two main event fighters. Moraes has 10 wins by knockout and six by submission. Sandhagen has four KOs and three subs.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information research and UFC Stats

Five vs. five

Marlon Moraes’ most recent results
Win: José Aldo (SD, Dec. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Henry Cejudo (TKO3, June 8, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Raphael Assunção (SUB1, Feb. 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Jimmie Rivera (KO1, June 1, 2018)
Win: Aljamain Sterling (KO1, Dec. 9, 2017)

Cory Sandhagen’s most recent results
Loss: Aljamain Sterling (SUB1, June 6, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Raphael Assunção (UD, Aug. 17, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: John Lineker (SD, April 27, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Mario Bautista (SUB1, Jan. 19, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Iuri Alcântara (TKO2, Aug. 25, 2018)

And the winner is …

I was all set to predict an upset, but then I looked at the odds. Sandhagen is actually the favorite, which surprises me, since he was quickly finished in his most recent fight by Sterling, whom Moraes had previously knocked out. I bring up Sterling here because I believe he will play a pivotal role in the outcome of this bout. Sandhagen came away from the Sterling fight recognizing the danger of starting slowly, and he has set his mind on not allowing it to happen again. That’s key against Moraes, a fast starter who has been known to slow down as a fight wears on. And questionable cardio does not bode well in a five-rounder against Sandhagen, who trains a mile above sea level and — if he can steer clear of early power — should be good to go for a strong 25 minutes. Sandhagen by decision.


Saturday’s fight card

ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Marlon Moraes vs. Cory Sandhagen | Men’s bantamweight
Edson Barboza vs. Makwan Amirkhani | Men’s featherweight
Ben Rothwell vs. Marcin Tybura | Heavyweight
Markus Perez vs. Dricus Du Plessis | Middleweight
Youssef Zalal vs. llia Topuria | Men’s featherweight
ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET
Tom Breese vs. KB Bhullar | Middleweight
Chris Daukaus vs. Rodrigo Nascimento | Heavyweight
Impa Kasanganay vs. Joaquin Buckley | Middleweight
Ali AlQaisi vs. Tony Kelley | Men’s bantamweight
Giga Chikadze vs. Omar Morales | Men’s featherweight
Tracy Cortez vs. Stephanie Egger | Women’s bantamweight
Bruno Silva vs. Tagir Ulanbekov | Men’s flyweight


How to watch the fights

Watch the fights on ESPN+. If you don’t have ESPN+, get it here.

There’s also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.


Five more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)

1. Edson Barboza will be fighting in a co-main event for the eighth time in his UFC career when he faces featherweight Makwan Amirkhani.

2. Ben Rothwell will be in the 51st fight of his professional MMA career when he faces Marcin Tybura in a heavyweight bout. Among UFC heavyweights, only Aleksei Oleinik (64) and Alistair Overeem (56) have more pro fights than “Big Ben.”

3. South African middleweight Dricus Du Plessis will be making his UFC debut, facing off with Markus Perez. Du Plessis, a former KSW middleweight champion, has never been to a decision in his 16-fight MMA career.

4. Eight fighters on the card will enter Saturday night having won three UFC fights this year. Youssef Zalal, 3-0 in 2020, will open the main card in a featherweight bout against Ilia Topuria, who will be making his UFC debit. Zalal will be looking to become the first UFC fighter to amass four wins this year.

5. Topuria is 8-0 in his MMA career, making him one of five fighters on the card who will enter the night with an undefeated record. Middleweight KB Bhullar (8-0) will be making his debut as a 2-to-1 underdog against veteran Tom Breese. Rodrigo Nascimento will put his 8-0 record on the line against heavyweight Chris Daukaus. Middleweight Impa Kasanganay (8-0) will make his second UFC appearance, facing Joaquin Buckley. And featherweight Omar Morales will look to move to 11-0 when he faces Giga Chikadze.

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How did figure skaters prepared for Skate America during a pandemic? It wasn’t easy

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After months of being joined at the hip, ice dancers Caroline Green and Michael Parsons found themselves cut off from each other from March until June of this year, living with their families 15 minutes apart in Rockville, Maryland, during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spring and early summer are normally crucial building-block times for ice dance and pairs teams constructing new programs as they choose new music and work on choreography. Green and Parsons didn’t want to lose momentum in just their second season as a duo at the senior level, so they were diligent about doing fitness workouts led by their coaches via Zoom. Parsons built a contraption to do pullups and inverted situps in his backyard, and used a downed tree limb for shoulder presses.

Staying in shape artistically was a different matter. Parsons and Green had decided they wanted to change up the music for their short program, or rhythm dance. So Green applied an old adage: She danced with the one who brought her, persuading her older brother and former partner Gordon to serve as a stand-in until she could train with Parsons again.

It wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Sure, the siblings had skated together for 10 years and won the 2019 junior national championship, but Gordon had since left the sport and was looking ahead to his freshman year of college. And the required pattern for the rhythm dance this season isn’t the easiest romp around the rink. It’s the Finnstep, a showy ballroom quickstep that, as stated on ice-dance.com, calls for “very crisp and tidy timing as well as footwork.”

“I do not know all of the boys’ steps, so it was kind of just a lot of trial and error,” Caroline Green said, laughing. “There was no video, thank goodness. I’m sure it was a little rough. Some of the things I tried — oooh, they didn’t quite work.”

In some ways, elite U.S. ice dancers and pairs skaters were no different from millions of people worldwide who adapted to taking movement classes via Zoom or other video applications. But there was one important difference. The skaters eventually had to transfer those remotely taught dance moves, intricate step sequences and lifts — the athletic maneuvers that are often the highlight of programs — to their far more slippery workplace.

The steps that worked as they slid around hardwood floors in their socks, or the flips they practiced in the backyard, didn’t necessarily fly once they got back on the ice. Imagine water polo players training on grass. It’s just not quite the same.

The programs that U.S. dance and pairs teams will debut for a national television audience at Skate America (Friday through Sunday, NBCSN) at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas — the first major event in a truncated international figure skating season — are the product of innovation born of necessity and aided by technology.

Dallas-area pairs skaters Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc assembled new short and long programs despite not having seen their choreographer, Michigan-based Pasquale Camerlengo, in person since last season. Normally, the 2019 national champions would work together on the ice for at least two weeks, with periodic checkups and fine-tunings throughout the season.

“Having to look at what they’re doing on a small screen or a computer, sometimes with bad wi-fi, and then they have to see how you’re interpreting that over a small screen, and doing all of this on the floor, so you’re not even on the same medium … oof, it was challenging,” LeDuc said. “It was definitely very outside our comfort zone. When we started, I would have been like, ‘You’re crazy, that’s never gonna happen, how on earth would we do that?’ And here we are.”

Now that they have journeyed this far, actual competition will test the athletes in a different way. Performing in an empty arena will deprive the skaters of the crowd energy they normally feed off. But the show is going on, and they are troupers, as recent months demonstrate.

For many top skaters, this season began abruptly with the end of the previous one, as the 2020 world championships in Montreal were canceled a week out.

Veteran ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates had been looking forward to competing in the city that has been their training base since mid-2018.

“The pandemic took us off the ice for the longest time since we started skating,” Chock said. Both began competing as young children and have since been selected for two Olympic teams together. (Bates made a third with an earlier partner.) “Not having that build and release and letdown after the competition — we were so ready and primed to compete, and to have to go into lockdown right after that was very strange. Our bodies were a bit confused.”

During the three months she and Bates were unable to access ice and unsure of when they might compete again, they found themselves relying on their longtime choreographer and dance coach at the Ice Academy of Montreal, Sam Chouinard, for technique and inspiration.

“Sam is the most energetic person I’ve ever met,” Bates said. “He’s like, “HEY GUYS OK WE’RE GONNA DO THIS.” The couple laughed.

Chouinard, who said he learned an enormous amount from teaching remotely, has since treated himself to what he calls a “Britney mic” — the same type of cordless headset favored by Britney Spears in concert — so his exhortations can be heard above music on a video call. His attitude helped Chock and Bates through some tedium as they danced in the entryway near their kitchen, or practiced lifts in a space thankfully high-ceilinged enough not to endanger her head.

“Prior to COVID we would have said that’s kind of silly, but we just got used to it,” Bates said. “Our norms have changed so much.”

While Chock and Bates elected to stay put in Canada, fellow ice dancers and Montreal academymates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker moved in with her family in Buffalo. They began working on new programs almost immediately in Zoom sessions with Chouinard and their main coach, Marie-France Dubreuil.

Two-time U.S. bronze medalists Hawayek and Baker caught a break with ice time when a Buffalo rink was allowed to reopen early in order to convert one ice sheet into a daycare center for children of essential workers. The team was able to rent ice while staying sufficiently distanced from others in the building. Still, they faced the issue of being physically separated from their coach and choreographer and communicating exclusively via Zoom.

“Usually the cycles of feedback we go through, we’re always incorporating what other people want to see in our programs. We haven’t dealt with that, so everything we’ve put into this is us. Which I think is a really cool thing.” Michael Parsons, ice dancer with partner Caroline Green

Working on their own and consulting frequently with their coaches, Hawayek and Baker gradually built confidence. It was the first time they’d ever had that much input in a competitive program, although they had choreographed their own exhibition numbers.

They had a useful tool provided by the federation — an auto-follow camera system called Move N See, which can be used with smartphones or tablets that sync with a watch worn on the ice. The system tracks from multiple spots around the rink and enabled Dubreuil to give the skaters feedback in real time from the big screen in her living room.

“We would record ourselves doing the same movement three different ways, from different angles, and be inspired by the work we did in Zoom on the floor and try to make it ours on the ice,” Hawayek said.

She and Baker moved back to Montreal in June and, after an obligatory 14-day quarantine, reunited with Dubreuil on the ice in early July — properly distanced, of course. The result? A modified version of their previous season’s disco-themed rhythm dance (2 minutes, 40 seconds) and an entirely new four-minute free dance program skated to the music of Philip Glass and Blondie.

“What you can see on video sometimes is deceiving, sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not,” Hawayek said. “Marie-France was very happy seeing only a two-dimensional view with this camera, that it worked out well in a three-dimensional way when we got here.

“We got to bring our own flair and creativity to the work. We kind of took the reins a little bit in our career in a way.”

Green and Parsons echoed that sentiment.

“I think it’s made these programs more ours, if that makes sense,” Parsons said. “Usually the cycles of feedback we go through, we’re always incorporating what other people want to see in our programs. We haven’t dealt with that, so everything we’ve put into this is us. Which I think is a really cool thing. These programs feel very genuine.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc livened up their at-home training with help from husband-and-wife skaters Robin Johnstone and Andy Buchanan, who have performed with Cirque du Soleil. With their instruction, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc incorporated walkovers — where Cain exits a lift by putting her hands on the ice and flipping over into their new programs.

The pairs took advantage of sunny spring weather in Dallas to try some lifts and throws in a grassy yard, and posted one Instagram video of Cain-Gribble spinning airborne over LeDuc’s outstretched arms on a concrete sidewalk outside their home.

Indoors, “we were on a hardwood floor in our socks so we could kind of shoosh around and do our best to fake ice-skate,” LeDuc said. “Everything on ice relies on speed and how we’re using the space that we have. On the floor, you can’t predict how many pushes you need, how long it will take. When we finally got back on the ice, there were times it was like, ‘We’re gonna have to retool this.’ Other parts we predicted perfectly.”

As assiduous as they’d been about trying to simulate skating, cold reality awaited when their rink reopened. “You’re super excited and you have all this adrenaline to skate, and you’re doing your jumps and everything feels good,” Cain-Gribble said. “Then a week went by. My body hurt, everything’s hurting. We had no idea what was coming next. You train, and you don’t know what you’re training for.”

Charlie White, the 2014 Olympic ice dance champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist with his partner Meryl Davis, has choreographed programs for all levels since he retired but stepped back from the sport in this strange year. “I would want to be able to be present,” he said. “There’s nuance that comes from the physical participation of the choreographers. I really feel for those who are pushing through this.”

The 2020-21 international figure skating season keeps shrinking as the pandemic continues its global spread.

The Grand Prix series, normally six events that winnow the field for a final, is down to four after the Canadian and French skating federations canceled events in those countries. Skaters will compete in just one event apiece on their home continents in North America, Europe and Asia. Chinese officials have indefinitely postponed the Grand Prix final originally scheduled for Beijing in December. The U.S. championships in San Jose, California, in mid-January and the world championships slated for Stockholm in March are still on.

Chock and Bates never stopped trying to make the best of their situation, but karma didn’t always cooperate. An injury to Chock sidelined the duo for two weeks this past summer, and they had to retreat to their home for another two weeks of total quarantine after learning they had been exposed to COVID-19. (Neither tested positive or became ill.)

They had made good progress on their free dance for the 2020-21 season, but didn’t feel it was competition-ready this month — and traveling to Las Vegas for Skate America would have meant yet another 14 days of quarantine back in Montreal when they returned. Chock and Bates withdrew and will continue training with the goal of defending their national title in January. They also decided to table their new free dance and compete with the same two programs as last year.

“Being an athlete at this level means being adaptable and being comfortable with discomfort — the difference here is managing not knowing,” Bates said. “The unknown is greater than it ever has been. It takes a lot of commitment and faith to continue to put everything into the preparation with that unknown looming. But we still feel very motivated.”

Top U.S. skaters had a dress rehearsal of sorts for the closed-door competition at Skate America, in the form of a virtual event held by U.S. Figure Skating last month. More than 100 junior- and senior-level athletes performed programs in their home rinks and sent videos to a judging panel. Prize money was awarded and the placements factored into slots at Skate America and the national championships. In videos posted on the federation’s website, a single clap is sometimes the only reaction.

Skaters are used to doing run-throughs in near-vacant rinks, but it’s the absence of facial feedback, even from their coaches, that affects them most.

“You don’t see much when the face is covered,” Baker said. “I understand it’s for safety and that’s great, but it was very different for us. You look at them and smile and try and perform, and you’re not getting anything back. It’s something we need to work with and learn from, and imagine a smile underneath.”

Artistic and theatrical elements are a major part of figure skating. Part of the job description is to emote, tell a story through a program and project energy — unlike football, baseball and basketball players who have the luxury of executing without having to worry about their expressions or staying in character.

“What I told them is even if we can’t see them, know there’s a lot of people watching,” Chouinard said. “‘Dig into your memories of previous competition. Look at YouTube. Picture that feeling before you go on the ice. You’re backstage, you hear the crowd … be led by that feeling.’ But that’s easy to say, and not easy to do.”

Parsons said he always tries to perform in a way that will reach “the farthest audience member in the arena. Now, that will be anyone online.”

His partner is also looking for the upside on their end of what has become a season of remote learning. “It almost encourages us to be twice as big and twice as bright on the ice, because if you aren’t super expressive, some of that might not translate through the camera,” Green said. “We’ll have to step up our game.”

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Sources: Vikes ship Ngakoue to Ravens for picks

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The Vikings have traded defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to the Ravens, Minnesota announced Thursday.

Sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the Vikings are receiving a 2021 third-round draft pick and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick. The Vikings did not disclose the picks involved in the deal.

Ngakoue will fly to Baltimore in the next 24 hours to go through COVID-19 testing so he can be ready to join his new team next week after it comes off its bye and returns to start preparations for its Week 8 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Baltimore has attempted to acquire Ngakoue multiple times in recent months, according to Schefter. Ngakoue hoped to land in Baltimore all along. He grew up in Bowie, Maryland, and starred at Maryland before being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016.

The Vikings had acquired Ngakoue in August by trading a 2021 second-round pick and 2022 conditional fifth-round pick to the Jaguars. Ngakoue, who had been given the franchise tag by the Jaguars in the offseason, agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal with the Vikings — instead of his franchise tender of $17.8 million — to complete the trade.

Ngakoue had five sacks and two forced fumbles in six games this season for Minnesota, but the Vikings have stumbled to a 1-5 start.

The trade reunites former Jaguars teammates Ngakoue and Calais Campbell. They were on the field together for 1,829 snaps over three seasons in Jacksonville (2017-19) and were the starting defensive ends for the Jaguars in the 2017 AFC Championship Game.

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Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, Titans’ Ryan Tannehill silence doubters by winning

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This time a year ago, Ryan Tannehill was supplanting Marcus Mariota as the starting quarterback of the Tennessee Titans after being cast away by the Miami Dolphins. Pittsburgh Steelers veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was less than a month into his rehab after season-ending elbow surgery to his throwing arm. Both of their futures were clouded with uncertainty.

Both quarterbacks came into the 2020 season with something to prove. For Tannehill, it was showing the Titans and their fans he was worthy of the four-year, $118 million extension he signed in March. And in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger was intent on proving that he still had quality years left at 38 with elbow surgery behind him.

Through five games, Tannehill and Roethlisberger have their teams on top of their division and in contention for the best record in the AFC. Entering Sunday’s matchup of the 5-0 teams (1 p.m. ET, CBS), each quarterback and their squads are light years away from where they were in October 2019. The game will be the sixth matchup in the Super Bowl era between unbeaten teams, 5-0 or better. Of the previous five, the winner made the Super Bowl every time.

Tannehill: A return on investment

Tannehill produced an historically efficient season with the Titans last season. He led the NFL with a 9.6 yard average per attempt and finished third with a 70.3 completion percentage. Only two other quarterbacks (Joe Montana in 1989 and Sammy Baugh in 1945) in NFL history posted a 70% completion percentage while averaging at least nine yards per attempt over a full season. The Titans’ offense scored 25 or more points in eight of their 10 games with Tannehill as the starting quarterback.

Despite the success Tennessee had in 2019, many wanted the Titans to try to sign Tom Brady instead of bringing Tannehill back. There were concerns in the NFL world that Tannehill might regress to some form of the quarterback who couldn’t get it done in Miami.

But general manager Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel knew Tannehill was their quarterback and he has shown why this season.

“He has the ability to coach players and leads them,” Vrabel said. “He explains to them the concepts that we are trying to accomplish and where he wants them. That’s the most critical part of the relationship between the QB and receiver. I think Ryan prepares the same and has kept a level head since the start of the season.”

Tannehill’s 13 touchdown passes place him in a tie for the fifth-most in the NFL, even though he has played only five games. Of his 13 touchdown passes, 12 have come in the red zone. In fact, the Titans are scoring touchdowns on 78% of their visits inside the 20-yard line. Since Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 7 last season, Tennessee has converted 83% of its red-zone trips into touchdowns. No team has scored at a higher rate inside the red zone over that span.

All of the players get involved in the offense. Everyone knows there is a good chance they’ll get the ball if they manage to get open. Tannehill has connected with five different pass-catchers on touchdown passes.

“Ryan has a good understanding of who those guys are as players,” receivers coach Rob Moore said. “He’s a QB that can go from read one to four in a heartbeat. They know they have to be where they are supposed to be and that he’ll get them the ball. He throws it to the open guy. As a receiver, you love playing for a guy like that.”

Tannehill has also proved to be a clutch QB for the Titans this season, having already orchestrated four game-winning drives. Per Elias Sports Bureau, Tannehill is the first quarterback to lead his team to four game-winning drives in the first five games of the season since the St. Louis Cardinals’ Charley Johnson in 1966.

When Tannehill steps to the huddle with the game on the line, his teammates have confidence he’ll lead them to victory.

“I am proud of our guys and the adversity we have faced being down in the fourth quarter now four times,” Tannehill said. “Every time we found a way.”

It’s safe to say things are pointing in the right direction for the Titans with Tannehill. The 32-year-old knows he’s a perfect fit for offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s scheme.

“Coming in, I expected to build off of last year. We had a lot of continuity,” Tannehill said. “For me, I am finding ways to win a game. Whatever the coaching staff and my team asks me to do, it’s my job to go out there and do it to the best of my ability.” — Turron Davenport

Roethlisberger: ‘Don’t feel like I’m done’

With two Super Bowl titles, six Pro Bowl selections and two seasons leading the league in passing yards, there’s not much Roethlisberger has left to prove.

But last year’s elbow injury in Week 2 and subsequent season-ending surgery gave him something to add to the list.

Shortly after three tendons ripped off the bone in Roethlisberger’s elbow, his wife, Ashley, told her husband she would support him if he wanted to retire, according to a docuseries produced by Roethlisberger’s agent.

But that was a nonstarter.

“I just didn’t feel like I was done playing football,” Roethlisberger said in August. “I really felt that I wanted to come back. I was excited about this team, and I just didn’t feel like I was, and I don’t feel like I’m done playing football yet. If it was a thought, it wasn’t a long one.”

Through five games, Roethlisberger is proving he can be an effective quarterback at 38 years old with a surgically repaired elbow — and that he can win.

The way he’s doing it, though, is a departure from his first 16 seasons.

His 7.04 air yards per attempt are Roethlisberger’s lowest through five games since ESPN began tracking the statistic in 2006. He’s also getting the ball out of his hands quicker, leading the league at 2.33 seconds to throw — his fastest mark since ESPN Stats & Info started charting it in 2016.

“You have to get the ball out quick,” he said Wednesday. “Sometimes we do what [offensive coordinator] Randy [Fichtner] says is get the ball in the hands of our playmakers — quick-throw short, run long.”

That Roethlisberger isn’t following the script that worked earlier in his career isn’t surprising. In the offseason, the Steelers added quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, known for using misdirection and RPOs, and Roethlisberger even said he was open to adjusting his style of play.

“I truly mean it when I say we have to do whatever we have to do to win football games,” Roethlisberger said in August. “Obviously as a quarterback, you know, you want to throw the ball. It’s just natural. But at this point in my career, especially with the group we have, it really can’t be about anything other than winning football games and doing that however we have to.”

Since coming back this season, Roethlisberger has been critical of himself week to week. After each game, he has pointed out something he needs to fix. And then he’s done that.

After one game, it was footwork. The next week, he used his day off to run through footwork drills with Canada. After another, he blamed himself for not having a strong enough connection with his receivers, and then emphasized that in practice during the week. Following the win against the Eagles, Roethlisberger said he wasn’t hitting on his deep balls as often. So before facing the Browns, he practiced throwing deep tosses with stacked trash cans in the end zone, a drill usually reserved for the younger backups and practice squad quarterbacks.

“What better time than at practice to drill some things — footwork, deep ball things,” he said. “I’ll just continue to try and get better. I don’t ever want to get worse, obviously. I want to try and find little ways and things I can do to keep improving my game.”

And it’s working.

Roethlisberger is nearly the most accurate he’s been in his career, completing 69.1% of his attempts for his third-highest rate through the first five games of a season. His QBR of 60.3 is his eighth-highest through five games since 2006.

“I’m not trying to prove anything to the outside world,” Roethlisberger said. “I just wanted to keep playing the game that I love with the teammates that I love for the fans that I love. That’s what’s most important in my mind.”

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