Sunday, October 9, 2011
Big Ben plays with pain, sense of urgency
By Jamison Hensley
Even hobbled by a sprained foot, Ben Roethlisberger was more than a match for the Titans.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers didn't have their best pass-rusher, their leading rusher and two starting defensive linemen.
But they did have Big Ben.
Limping to the sideline after every drive, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rarely lost stride on the field, tying a team record with five touchdown passes and leading the Steelers to a much-needed 38-17 win over the Tennessee Titans. Pittsburgh avoided going below .500 and improved to 3-2 to keep within a half-game of the division-leading Ravens.
No one could say where the renewed sense of urgency came from Sunday, although the importance of this game should have been clear to every Steeler when Roethlisberger put on an oversized shoe with a steel plate in the bottom to stabilize his sprained left foot.
In warm-ups, a hobbled Roethlisberger trailed his teammates sprinting onto the field. After the opening kickoff, Roethlisberger was the one who was leading everyone.
He threw touchdown passes of 8, 7 and 1 yards on the first three drives. These are the same Steelers who had two touchdowns in the previous 21 drives entering the game.
This wasn't just a gutsy performance. It was a punch-the-other-team-in-the-gut effort.
"I just don't want to let my guys down," Roethlisberger said. "I want to give them my best. I'll be there until they take me off in a cart, which has happened before. Regardless of injury, there are lots of guys going through it. We just have to go out and do our best."
Maybe an injured Roethlisberger is a more dangerous one. In his first four games, he had three touchdowns and five interceptions.
With the sprained foot, Roethlisberger turned into a West Coast-style quarterback who took three-step drops and got rid of the ball quickly. Instead of always looking for the knockout blows, it was more like a series of jabs from Roethlisberger, who was 24 of 34 for 228 yards.
He also didn't force the ball downfield against the Titans' Cover 2 defense. Roethlisberger took the intermediate passes over the middle, completing 10 total passes to Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.
"I'm not the only guy playing with an injury," Roethlisberger said. "I'm not going to complain about it. More impressively and more importantly is how guys have stepped up and filled in for people."
Still, there were nine Steelers on the injury report this week, including six starters: Roethlisberger, nose tackle Casey Hampton (shoulder), linebacker James Harrison (eye), defensive end Aaron Smith (foot), running back Rashard Mendenhall (hamstring) and left guard Chris Kemoeatu (knee). The only one who stepped, or limped, onto the field was Roethlisberger.
He went through his progressions before finding Miller over the middle for his first touchdown. He sold the Titans' defense on a play-action fake before hitting a wide-open Ward for his second one. And he rolled to his right before connecting with David Johnson for his third scoring pass of the first half.
Roethlisberger extended the Steelers' lead to 28-3 in the third quarter with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ward and put the finishing touches on the convincing victory with a 40-yard touchdown strike to Mike Wallace in the fourth quarter.
Because Roethlisberger has played hurt so many times, his teammates weren't really surprised by his effort.
"We're used to it," Ward said.
To put Roethlisberger's performance in perspective, he threw five touchdown passes against the NFL's stingiest defense, one that had allowed five touchdowns all season.
"We expect him to play well," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's an A-player. He's got to play [that way] for us in order for us to do well."
Roethlisberger's heroics shouldn't overshadow how others stepped up for the Steelers to pound a Titans team that had won three consecutive games, including convincing victories over two AFC North teams (Baltimore and Cleveland).
Max Starks received the game ball when he started at left tackle after three practices. The offensive line allowed Roethlisberger to get hit once and opened up holes that allowed backup running backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to gain 156 yards.
The Steelers' struggling run defense was impressive despite missing three starters out the front seven. After giving up 21 yards on the first run, Pittsburgh limited Titans running back Chris Johnson to 30 yards on his remaining 13 carries (2.3 yards). It looked like the old Steelers defense with the amount of pursuit and penetration.
And the Steelers' coaching staff heavily influenced the outcome. Tomlin held two padded practices this week to get that physical mentality back. Then, with the Steelers ahead 7-3 early in the second quarter, Pittsburgh converted a fourth-and-5 at midfield with a fake punt. The 33-yard pass from punter Daniel Sepulveda (his second career completion) led to the Steelers' second touchdown.
"We weren’t going to leave any bullets in the gun," Tomlin said.
That all-out approach described Roethisberger's game.
When he came off the field following a drive, he hobbled to the sideline and grimaced with each step he took on the injured foot. When he was under center, it was difficult to tell he was injured.
Now, even with a less-than-full-strength Roethlisberger, the Steelers appear set to make a run. Pittsburgh plays host to Jacksonville (1-4) before going to Arizona (1-4).
Asked how his foot was feeling after the game, Roethlisberger said, "We won the game big-time, so it feels good."