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Suspended players are about to return and give teams a boost

The Times' NFL writer examines the fallout from Week 4 and how it could affect Week 5.

October 04, 2010|Sam Farmer

Three of the AFC's richest teams are about to get richer.

With the first month of the NFL season in the books, players serving four-game suspensions are cleared to return to their teams.

That means quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns to the Pittsburgh Steelers, linebacker Brian Cushing goes back to the Houston Texans and receiver Santonio Holmes can make his debut with the New York Jets.

"I couldn't wait to get here," Roethlisberger on Monday told reporters in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are happy to have him back, especially in light of injuries to quarterback understudies Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon. Still, the team cobbled together a surprising 3-1 record behind the solid play of journeyman Charlie Batch, and now has a week off before playing host to Cleveland a week from Sunday.

Roethlisberger couldn't practice with the team during his suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy, so he worked with personal quarterbacks coach George Whitfield to keep his skills sharp.

"I'm not worried about my arm. My arm is ready," Roethlisberger said. "The biggest thing is to refresh my mind with the offense and getting timing down with these guys."

His agent, Bruce Tollner, said Roethlisberger worked very hard to stay conditioned during the suspension and, although he's leaner, actually might be a bit heavier because of added muscle.

In Roethlisberger's absence, the Steelers have won games in their old-school way, with a running game and a relentless defense. They're tied for seventh in rushing (up from 19th last season), averaging 133.5 yards per game. Their defense is ranked first against the run and fifth overall.

Roethlisberger said he could never get comfortable from afar watching his team play games. It was too stressful.

"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."

The Texans, also 3-1, didn't make Cushing available Monday, but Coach Gary Kubiak said the linebacker will play Sunday against the New York Giants.

Cushing, a former USC star, was suspended in May for testing positive for the fertility drug HCG, which can be used to mask steroids. He made 133 tackles last season, starting every game at outside linebacker.

Kubiak said he had no concerns about Cushing working to stay in top shape during the suspension, but acknowledged there will be an adjustment to get up to NFL speed.

"There is a level of sharpness, just from not playing, not taking all the snaps," Kubiak said. "Everybody on the team is about 250 snaps ahead of him right now in an NFL season. But he's proven that he can play missing practice; he did that last year."

Cushing wasn't the only NFL linebacker suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. Also coming back are Tennessee's Gerald McRath and Atlanta's Robert James.

Also cleared to return from suspensions are Buffalo tight end Shawn Nelson and Denver running back LenDale White, who shared ball-carrying duties with Reggie Bush at USC. White, however, is out for the season because of a torn Achilles' tendon.

Holmes, traded from Pittsburgh to the Jets, won Super Bowl most-valuable-player honors with the Steelers when he made the winning catch against Arizona. He served his suspension this season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

The Jets made room on their roster Monday for Holmes and defensive tackle Howard Green by waiving fourth and fifth receivers, David Clowney and Patrick Turner.

New York, which plays Minnesota on Monday, is also hoping to get back linebacker Calvin Pace and cornerback Darrelle Revis, both recovering from injuries. But Holmes promises to give a boost to an already potent offense.

"We shouldn't miss a beat with him," Coach Rex Ryan said. "To add a terrific player like Santonio to what we already have, our offense is on a roll, it's good.

"It should be fun to watch."

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