By Scott Brown
November 17, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- On a gray day when not even a steady rain could snuff out the offensive fireworks at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger showed why the Pittsburgh Steelers will find a way to keep him in Pittsburgh through the end of his career.
Or at least as long as the 10th-year veteran is able to lead drives like the one that covered 97 yards in a half-empty stadium on Sunday. That fourth-quarter drive might have saved the Steelers' season.
Roethlisberger completed 7 of 10 passes for 82 yards on the drive that he capped with a 1-yard scoring toss to fullback Will Johnson and put the Steelers ahead for good in their 37-27 win against the Lions.
His clutch play in leading the Steelers back from a fourth-quarter tie or deficit for the 32ndtime of his career allowed the Steelers to improve to 4-6 and stay in the playoff hunt in the mediocre AFC, as well as remain in contention in the AFC North.
The Steelers are either tied for second in the division or in last place depending on your vantage point. And the mood that prevailed in the Steelers' locker room late Sunday afternoon sure made it feel like the former.
The Steelers had every reason to be both happy and relieved.
They lacked a signature win before beating the Lions, and they won despite playing without three starters -- and playing without a defense for an entire quarter.
After the Lions scored 27 points in the second quarter to turn a 14-point deficit into a seven-point halftime lead, you figured last rites were being administered to the Steelers' season in the locker room, or coach Mike Tomlin was yelling at his players loud enough to be heard in Cleveland, or that his captains were doing it for him.
But the Steelers, to a man, said they stayed calm and resolute.
"There's a time and place for (locker room outbursts), and I think it takes veteran leadership to have that discernment," strong safety Troy Polamalu said, "where you've got to challenge people or you've got to keep calm and make sure everybody has their wits about them."
Nobody exemplified that more than Roethlisberger, who was at his best when the Steelers needed him most.
A failed fake field goal by the Lions left the Steelers on their own 3-yard line early in the fourth quarter. But Roethlisberger calmly led them down the field, hitting Antonio Brown on third-and-nine from the Steelers' 4-yard line with a 16-yard pass. He later rumbled 10 yards on third-and-12 to set up a 3-yard swing pass toLe'Veon Bell that moved the chains.
Roethlisberger didn't flinch. Two plays after Antonio Brown bobbled a perfectly thrown pass as he was going out of bounds, Roethlisberger calmly threw a swing pass that Johnson pulled in on his way to the most important score of the season.
"I think when the game is on the line you just love that situation," Roethlisberger said after throwing for 367 yards and four touchdowns.
The defense made the touchdown stand up, and it played its most inspired -- and unlikely -- half of the season following intermission. Stafford completed just three passes in the final two quarters. He threw for 47 fewer yards than Roethlisberger had on the drive that put the Steelers ahead for good.
The Steelers also shut out Calvin Johnson in the final two quarters, and anyone who saw only a box score would have thought that the wide receiver known as Megatron either got hurt or was kidnapped before the second-half kickoff.
The Steelers said they didn't make any major adjustments in covering Johnson. And as well as the defense played in the second half, the Steelers won the game for a reason that several players articulated afterward.
"They couldn't stop our offense," free safety Ryan Clark said of the Lions. "Our offense ran up and down the field all day. We just needed to get the ball to them."
The win showcased Roethlisberger's greatness and also validated offensive coordinator Todd Haley as a play-caller for at least one week. It also showed why Roethlisberger has to be the player the Steelers build around as they retool an aging defense.
The NFL is clearly a passing league, and if you don't have a quarterback in this league, you don't have a chance. Even when there was more of a premium on quaint concepts such as running the ball and winning with defense, the position of quarterback was still critical.
Remember, the Steelers went through quite a few quarterbacks in between Terry Bradshaw and Roethlisberger.
The stretch that is littered with forgettable signal callers is all the more reason why any separation between the Steelers and Roethlisberger would be foolish on the former's part. It is also something that would destroy the latter's legacy in Pittsburgh if he orchestrated it, and you have to think that means something to Roethlisberger as much as he talks about wanting to play his entire career for one team.
Questions continue to swirl around Roethlisberger's long-term future after the NFL Network reported on Sunday that money and the specter of losing could cause him to want out of Pittsburgh sooner rather than later.
"False and false," Roethlisberger said. "I don't want to go anywhere for any reason."
Neither should the Steelers.
And the franchise that has won a record six Lombardi Trophies will figure out a way to keep Roethlisberger, and keep the Steelers competitive.