By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, October 10, 2011
Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers calls out signals at the line of scrimmage against the Tennessee Titans during the game on October 9, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Through four games, I'd begun to think the Steelers' only viable option to preserve Ben Roethlisberger was to freeze him. You know, cryogenics. Store him away and save him for some other day, when he wouldn't be limping for his life on a sprained foot.
But for this one day, this 38-17 bounce-back body slam of the Tennessee Titans on a pristine Sunday at Heinz Field, a few other less creative options were unearthed.
Like, oh, blocking.
And executing plays quickly.
And having receivers work their routes correctly.
And establishing an honest-to-Franco running game.
And trying just about every reverse, play-action pass and fake punt in offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' playbook.
Funny how this works, but that sudden burst of competence helped Roethlisberger complete 24 of 34 passes for 228 yards and five touchdowns — second time in his career, one more than Terry Bradshaw — despite mobility that ranged somewhere between Kent Graham and the Mister Rogers monument. The sprained left foot had Roethlisberger limping before, during and after the game, but he held the pocket and, to borrow wide receiver Hines Ward's description, "played his tail off for us out there."
No one should dispute it or downplay it. But the hard truth is, neither the Steelers nor Roethlisberger had a choice. Someone needed to erase the stink of Houston, to avoid the amplifying doubts that would follow a 2-3 start. Someone needed to breathe life back into a franchise that surely was asking questions of itself that a lot of us had been asking for weeks.
Only one player on this roster has the singular ability to change that. Roethlisberger needed to step up, even if it was just on one foot.
"I just don't want to let my guys down," he said afterward. "I want to give them my best. I'll be there until they take me off on a cart, which has happened before. I want to put this team and this offense in the best position to win football games."
The best position, as Roethlisberger saw it, was to play without limitation.
I asked Arians if he had adjusted his playcalling in any way to compensate for the foot injury, and Arians swore that "not one thing" was changed. Earlier in the week, Arians went over play after play with his quarterback to check if he could run it, and Roethlisberger nodded with each. Before the game yesterday, recognizing a brick wall when he saw one, Arians told Roethlisberger: "Play football the way you know how. Don't change who you are just because people think you'll get sacked."
So it was that Roethlisberger shrugged off two game-opening incompletions by nailing his next four passes. The last was an 8-yard touchdown to tight end Heath Miller that pierced right between the 8 and the 3.
He was 3 of 4 on the next drive, capped by a 7-yard touchdown to Ward.
On the third drive, he handed off to Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer repeatedly to get to the Tennessee 1. Once there, he and Arians turned to one of those plays that had been a concern to Arians, a rollout to the right. Roethlisberger ran across to fire a touchdown to tight end David Johnson, then slowly limped to the Steelers' sideline, which conveniently was in the same direction. He hunched over in clear agony.
"Ben said he could do it," Arians said. "You saw that he could."
Anyone still think Roethlisberger is faking or milking these things?
The man was sacked 14 times through four games, hit 21 other times, crushed from the blind side at least four times, had his right knee bent sideways by a cheap shot, and still suited up Sunday.
What more does the irrational faction of his critics want?
There was credit to go around: Redman and Dwyer battled far harder for their yards than Rashard Mendenhall had been doing. LaMarr Woodley finally showed up. Nose tackle Chris Hoke was receiving raves for his work as Casey Hampton's substitute. Troy Polamalu was ablaze. And the offensive line, led by Maurkice Pouncey back in Pro Bowl form and Max Starks back in the fold, was stunningly solid. Roethlisberger was sacked once.
Was it all real?
Let's wait and see. For this one day, linebacker Lawrence Timmons summed it up best when asked about all of the injuries: "We are the Pittsburgh Steelers. We're a tough team."
Let me take that to a different level: Ben Roethlisberger is the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he's never been tougher.