By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, December 9, 2011
Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws a 79 yard touchdown pass to teammate Antonio Brown #84 against the Cleveland Browns during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Ben Roethlisberger stood in the long shadow of the Steelers' goal posts
late Thursday night, not a soul nearby, and simply watched as Antonio
Brown caught his pass and took off.
Then, as Brown ran farther and farther down the right sideline,
Roethlisberger turned to Heinz Field's big scoreboard for a better view
of the end of the play.
Turned gingerly, too.
One foot at a time, to avoid further tweaking to the high left ankle
he'd badly sprained an hour earlier, to the injury he later described as
"the worst pain I've ever felt in my life."
By the time the prodigious Brown was done with his 79-yard touchdown,
the one that drove a stake in the Cleveland Browns with 2:52 left, no
one was celebrating with Roethlisberger, no one congratulating him.
Everyone had run downfield to help Brown.
Not that he minded.
"I'm glad he made it," Roethlisberger said. "I'm not sure if I'd have
been able to get down there if we had to run another play."
Roethlisberger laughed, but his reaction after the play might have told
this story best: He bent forward, put his hands on his knees, looked to
the ground, then glanced back up at the scoreboard one more time.
Steelers 14, Browns 3.
It's a fine line, to borrow the terminology of one William Laird Cowher,
when it comes to playing through injury. It's the line between bravery
and foolishness, between helping the team win and hurting the team in
the long run.
But it's never been a blurry line for the NFL's toughest quarterback:
The only line that matters is the finish line.
"Ben's the toughest guy on this team," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
"Takes a lot to get that man out of the game," backup quarterback
Charlie Batch said. "You need a stretcher."
Roethlisberger's ability to overcome injury is, depending on the
viewpoint, the stuff of legend, the object of ridicule or somewhere in
Sorry, not this one.
With 6:08 left in the second quarter, Cleveland defensive tackle Scott
Paxson drove hard -- but cleanly -- into Roethlisberger's left thigh.
That caused the leg to contort hideously and the ankle, in particular,
to buckle in a way that silenced even the vendors. Those who could see
TV replays gasped.
But no one, from the sound of it, was more horrified than
"I thought my leg was broken, to be honest," he said. "I thought I'd
look down and see my foot coming out or something. I didn't know what to
Roethlisberger stayed down for about three minutes, then was escorted to
the locker room.
No way was he coming back.
Even Roethlisberger's most ardent critics, those who call him "drama
queen" and other insults related to milking his various injuries, even
they had to be sure this was Batch's game - maybe his season - to win or
Batch sure thought so.
"Grabbed my helmet right away," he said.
At halftime, though, X-rays showed no break. There was no MRI, which
would show a far more detailed image of the ligaments. Those will come
today, and, given Roethlisberger's agonizing-just-to-watch limp
afterward and declaration that his ankle "feels like it's going to
explode," the news might worsen.
As it was at halftime, the Steelers' doctors gave their blessing,
according to coach Mike Tomlin, and that was enough. With less than a
minute before kickoff, Roethlisberger emerged from the tunnel and
hastily zipped through warmup snaps and tosses.
"I had a lot of doubts if I'd get back out there," he said. "But I
didn't want to let the team down."
When he took the field, the crowd stood and roared. But he could barely
move, and a few throws were off target. On one play, he nearly fell on
his face in executing a simple handoff to Rashard Mendenhall. But he
adjusted, as he has before, staying in the pocket and working out of the
shotgun. And he connected with Brown when it counted most, lifting the
Steelers to a key victory that has them at an AFC-best 10-3.
His final tally was 16 of 21 completions for 280 yards and two
After Roethlisberger's reaction to the Brown touchdown, at least one
person in the stadium noticed he was alone. That's when left tackle and
longtime friend Max Starks trotted out to the field, where the two
"I saw everybody else was down there with Antonio," Starks said, "and I
knew Ben would want to be down there, too. That play started with him."
Everything the Steelers do starts there.
William Gay #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers intercepts a pass by in front of Mohamed Massaquoi #11 of the Cleveland Browns during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers QB: Forget the 16 of 21 for 280 yards and two TDs. There’s no one in the NFL tougher at his position.
William Gay, Steelers CBL: His late interception was only part of another sterling coverage performance that included three passes defensed.
Antonio Brown, Steelers WR: His 79-yard TD with 2:52 left sealed it up, and he finished with five catches for 151 yards. And the guy didn’t start.