Steelers, NFL legend Rod Woodson says Ben Roethlisberger ‘doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody’

Written by on August 17, 2021

Rod Woodson knows a thing or two about being doubted. The first NFL player to return the same season after undergoing major knee surgery, Woodson was selected to his seventh Pro Bowl in 1996, his first full season back from his injury. Many, however, thought Woodson’s better days were behind him at age 31. The Steelers may not have been in that camp, but they didn’t necessarily go to great lengths to keep the former Defensive Player of the Year that ensuing offseason. That’s why, after 10 glittering years with the Steelers, Woodson left Pittsburgh motivated to prove he still had it. 

The short answer was yes, Woodson was still an elite player. After moving from cornerback to free safety, Woodson was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls. He twice led the league in interceptions, a feat he never accomplished in Pittsburgh. He was part of the Ravens‘ historically dominant defense that led them to their first world title. He made All-Pro two years later, his third such honor.

It’s safe to say that Woodson understands what Ben Roethlisberger is going through. Despite last year’s success, Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ late-season collapse led to outside doubts regarding Pittsburgh’s future Hall of Fame quarterback. Woodson recently spoke with CBS Sports about Big Ben, his own history-making recovery, comparing the 2000 Ravens defense with his “Blitzburgh” units in Pittsburgh, and his role in the NFL Alumni’s campaign to tackle COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy. 

Q. There are plenty of doubters as it relates to Ben Roethlisberger heading into the 2021 season. Looking back on what you went through after leaving Pittsburgh, what would your advice be for him? 

RW: “Ben doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody. If anything, he has to prove it to himself. Ben has played so well throughout his career in Pittsburgh, he is always going to be compared to the younger Ben. That’s a good thing, because he was a baller and he still is a very good player. I don’t think he has anything to prove. 

“If they get a running game, it helps Ben so much more with his passing attack. The defense I think is going to be solid. I don’t think Ben really has anything to prove anything to anybody. I know in his head as a competitor, he’s going to prove it to himself that he still can play at a high level. That’s what he has to take to the field week in and week out that when he looks in the mirror, he’s going to be satisfied with what he sees in the mirror. If he does that, then he’ll play at a really good level, and the Steelers are going to win a lot of football games.” 

Q. You tore your ACL while also injuring your MCL in Week 1 of the 1995 season, yet made it back in time to play in Super Bowl XXX. Was the plan always to make it back if the Steelers made a deep playoff run? 

RW: “I didn’t know the diagnosis. I had no idea what the recovery period was for that injury. On Monday, when Bill Cowher and I sat down, the team doctor said that’s like a 4-6 month recovery period. As soon as he said four months, I started thinking, ‘I can play.’ Bill was open-minded enough to listen. I don’t think any other coach in the league would have done that. He did leave that light at the end of the tunnel for me. 

“Obviously, if we had more injuries, if we had a ravaged secondary with injuries, they would have had to put me on IR to put more bodies on the active roster. Carnell Lake did a tremendous job moving from strong safety to playing corner, and we got back to the Super Bowl. It gave me a great opportunity. But it started with Bill Cowher saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to listen to you. But if anybody else gets hurt, I’m going to have to put you on IR. But if nobody does, then we can ride this thing out.’” 

Q. Where does that recovery rank for you in terms of career milestones? 

RW: “That’s when I knew that I had a little toughness about me. Going through the rehab was pretty grueling. Getting my knee bent up all the time and trying to get back to a physical form even though the knee was going to heal when it heals. I was making all the muscles around the knee stronger. 

“I would put it right up there. I think me being on the 75th anniversary team was a shocker to me because I was only seven years into the league and was the youngest player on the 75th Anniversary Team. So that’s up there. But then coming back and having the mental and physical toughness to push through that, I didn’t know that I had that at that time. Bill Cowher let me see what he saw inside of me. I put that up in the 1 or 2 category of lifetime achievement awards.”

Woodson was one of five active players named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. He also named to the NFL’s 100th anniversary team in 2019. 
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Q. What did your rehab consist of? 

RW: “It was swimming, the non-weight bearing treadmill, biking. When the postseason started, it was so cold out, we put astroturf inside the convention center, and I practiced on that. That’s not really smart to do, coming back from an ACL practicing on a surface like that, but that’s all we had. 

“I think, if I wouldn’t have had the MCL — the MCL has to heal before the ACL — I think I would have played even sooner, but I had to wait for the MCL to heal before I could go in and have the surgery on my ACL.” 

Q. What was the plan going into Super Bowl XXX? You had a memorable breakup of a pass intended for Michael Irvin, and the defense had a strong performance against a talented Cowboys offense. 

RW: “I didn’t start, but I played in our sub package. My biggest thing was to go out there and not worry about the knee, don’t even think about it. I really didn’t. I never thought about the knee throughout the game. Unfortunately, Neil [O’Donnell] threw two interceptions. We did our job on defense. We held Emmitt Smith to not that many rushing yards (49 on 18 carries). They made all the plays they had to make on defense, put their offense in pretty good positions and they got the victory.”

Q. How do some of the defenses you played on in Pittsburgh compare to the defense you won a Super Bowl with in Baltimore? 

RW: “Looking at Baltimore, we really kind of ran the same system that we ran in Pittsburgh. Remember, Marvin Lewis was our defensive coordinator, and he started in Pittsburgh. So we called the fire zones and all that stuff. We just did it out of the 4-3 (as opposed to Pittsburgh’s 3-4 base). That backside defender, he’s not a WILL linebacker, now he’s a defensive end, so sometimes in coverage he would be matched up on tight ends and whatnot. So we made different calls up to help that backside defensive end in coverage, because we’ll still bring four to a side and drop that backside in. In the 3-4, that’s the outside linebacker, he’s used to covering people, but in the 4-3, that’s a defensive end who is not used to covering people and dropping. 

“I just don’t think we have — even though I respect all our interior defensive linemen for the Steelers — for that two-year period that we had in Baltimore with Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa, we never had that interior girth in Pittsburgh, and that’s really what made the difference.” 

Q. You’ve joined the NFL Alumni’s campaign to tackle COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy. Why did you feel compelled to join the campaign, and what would your message be for anyone who is hesitant about getting vaccinated? 

RW: “In our modern time, nobody has seen a pandemic. The people who have been affected, those are the people who need to reach out and say get educated, speak to your local doctors and healthcare providers, educate yourself and make a wise decision. 

“Most of the people affected in some capacity have gotten vaccinated. Most of the individuals who have not gotten it, nobody in their family has been affected. I think that’s kind of the norm across the U.S. … We’ve go to hope that [the message] does reach an audience and that they do educate themselves and continue to educate themselves on this subject matter.”


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