The words they had chosen at week’s outset to express what they were experiencing included “shocking” and “surreal,” and they were most appropriate given the circumstances.
“He aches for Ben,” head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged of Mason Rudolph on Tuesday.
The Steelers’ former No. 2 QB, the one who will start this Sunday at San Francisco wasn’t and still isn’t alone in that sentiment.
But Rudolph also wasn’t the only player laughing in the locker room following practice this afternoon.
“I obviously like to run the ball with our offensive line,” Rudolph offered during a group interview. “The offensive line we have, it’s pretty awesome for a young quarterback to come into.”
And that point, guard Ramon Foster interrupted.
“Pretty dope shoutout,” Foster announced. “I was listening, waiting to see if you were gonna shout us out, and you did it!”
It’s a Steelers interview tradition, an expectation, actually, with which Rudolph has quickly gotten up to speed.
The day before, safety Terrell Edmunds had used a boom box to lighten the mood.
And offensive tackle Zach Banner had messed with inside linebacker Devin Bush by grabbing a television reporter’s microphone and waving it in the rookie’s face during another group media session.
And defensive tackle Cam Heyward had interrupted an interview Foster was conducting by offering a derogatory critique of Foster’s alma mater, the University of Tennessee.
The Steelers still ache for Ben Roethlisberger.
But there are still 14 regular-season games to play, even if Roethlisberger won’t be playing in any of them.
“I personally just separate the two,” tight end Vance McDonald said. “I care for Ben outside the walls of this room and this building. Football is football and life is way bigger, and so I hate that for him personally.
“But for football, Ben’s talent level, obviously, he is what he is, a Hall-of-Famer. But Mason can come in and we can still operate and we can still execute on offense and move the ball and score and win. That doesn’t change for me, I just separated the two.”
Added offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner: “It’s a sad moment for anybody. But like I told him and I told the group, I got time to be sad that night because we lost, first, and then second, because it maybe might look bleak for him from an injury standpoint. But then the next day you’re back to work and that’s just the way it is and I’m sorry, you gotta go.
“Ben knows, and I’ve talked to him about it, that’s the only approach I can have because I owe it to the rest of the group. Whatever maybe leadership that you know he was giving the group, if they’re looking for any bit of it and don’t find it in anybody else, they gotta find it in me.”
It’s been that way this week for Fichtner and Rudolph, in particular.
“Starting on Sunday, he was very quick to ask me, ‘Hey, what do you like?’” Rudolph explained. “I kind of try to give him and idea, without overdoing it, what I like if I was to go in, even when Ben’s playing in the game. We have a good feel for what he likes to call, what I like him to call, it started with that.
“Nothing’s out of the ordinary, just going through our same routine in-week that Ben did, and I try to follow that. It’s a great opportunity for me to have seen Ben work for a year and some change. I’ve never really had that older of a great quarterback to watch, it’s been awesome.
“There’s a lot of things I want to do but the only goal for me, for us, is to win.”
Shoutout to the offensive line.
The Steelers prepare for the Week 3 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers