PITTSBURGH (AP) Michael Vick's faith never wavered.
Not when months went by and the phone didn't ring. Not when his arrival in Pittsburgh at the end of training camp sparked small protests outside the Steelers' facility and a few raised eyebrows within it.
And certainly not when he saw Ben Roethlisberger grabbing his left knee in St. Louis last Sunday, the franchise quarterback's medial collateral ligament sprained and his immediate future very much in doubt.
Sure, this isn't the way Vick wanted to get back on the field. Yet the four-time Pro Bowler isn't about to apologize for the opportunity in front of him, the one he was convinced would come.
''I kept the faith and kept believing,'' Vick said Tuesday. ''This is what I love to do, so I continue to work hard at it. I just have to keep fighting every day.''
Vick will run out of the tunnel at Heinz Field on Thursday night as the starter when the Steelers (2-1) host Baltimore (0-3). What better showcase to go out and prove that at 35 and in the twilight of an enigmatic career that he remains one of the most unique talents to ever line up under center?
''I feel like I have a chance to go out and play freely and enjoy the game, enjoy this moment and be out there with my teammates,'' Vick said. ''God has put this in front of me and it's up to me to handle it like a professional.''
If Pittsburgh wants to keep pace in the AFC North while Roethlisberger's knee heals, Vick doesn't really have a choice. For perhaps the first time in his football life, however, Vick will work within an offense in which he is not the most gifted player.
The presence of All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell means Vick won't be required to save the day as much as not ruin it.
To that end, Vick and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have been cramming to put together a game plan that allows Brown and Bell to do what they do without asking Vick to do something he can't.
''He is not just stepping in and doing what Ben did, so to speak,'' Haley said. ''He is going to be doing what gives Mike Vick the best chance to help us succeed.''
And that includes letting the big arm and the impossibly fast legs that turned Vick into a video game legend in his prime a decade ago do their thing. Haley kept Vick under wraps when Vick replaced Roethlisberger late in the third quarter against the Rams.
Trying to protect a six-point lead, Vick did little more than turn and give the ball to Bell or fire complete a series of short passes that were mostly extended handoffs. He wasn't exactly perfect, fumbling once (recovered by Bell) and having his lone incompletion nearly turn into an interception. Maybe that's why he kind of shrugged his shoulders when the clock hit zero even as head coach Mike Tomlin raced over to congratulate him.
''All that was on my mind was how I can get better and what I could have done better,'' Vick said. ''That's just how hard I am on myself.''
Given four days to prepare for a struggling Baltimore defense, Vick should have more of the playbook at his disposal. He could also have Roethlisberger next to him on the sideline if Roethlisberger can ditch the crutches he's been on since Sunday.
''If I see something, have to talk to Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, or whoever it may be, I want to be there,'' Roethlisberger said. ''If I can help Mike in any way, I would like to do that.''
Especially if Roethlisberger is going to have to get used to the view. Roethlisberger declined to put a timetable on his return and admitted he initially thought he broke his leg. When an MRI revealed only a sprain and a bone bruise, he was relieved his season wasn't over.
''I want to get back as soon as I can, but we also have to be smart and not get too crazy,'' Roethlisberger said.
Meaning Vick will have time to figure things out. Once the initial adrenaline rush wears off against the Ravens, it will be back to football. He's not the breathtaking force of nature he once was. That hardly means he can't be effective.
''As long as I can put that helmet and shoulder pads on and have knowledge of what we are doing,'' Vick said, ''confidence will never be an issue.''
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