November 23, 2013
CLEVELAND -- Before the Browns went out and beat Baltimore's Joe Flacco two games ago, they had his 11-0 record against them shoved down their throats all week.
This week, it's been Big Ben Roethlisberger and his Big Bad 15-1 record against the Browns heading into Sunday's game at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"Who wouldn't be tired of 15-1?'' said defensive tackle Phil Taylor. "It's just like with the Ravens. People are going to say what they want to say about the records -- him vs. us -- but we're going to take it one game at a time. This game is on Sunday and we're going to handle it.''
Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has been on the losing end of more of those Big Ben victories than he'd care to admit, but in a season where the Brown have defeated the Super Bowl MVP in Flacco and subdued Cincinnati's Andy Dalton once and had him on the ropes a second time, anything can happen, right?
"It's hard to believe,'' Jackson said of Roethlisberger's 15-1 dominance over the Browns. "But he's had a great career over there. He's won two Super Bowls and they’ve always orchestrated a great team over there, starting with great defense, and Big Ben has had a lot to do with a lot of their success in the past.
"As of late, they've been getting back on track, so we know we’re going to have our hands full this Sunday.''
Roethlisberger doesn't even try to hide the revenge factor against the Browns, who passed on him with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2004 draft and opted for tight end Kellen Winslow instead. The Steelers selected Roethlisberger five picks later and have two more gleaming Lombardi trophies in the Heinz Field lobby to show for it.
"I've been very fortunate to play on some really good football teams,'' Roethlisberger, a native of Findlay, Ohio and graduate of Miami University, said on a conference call this week. "You're going back home to Ohio to play against kind of a hometown team, so it always adds a little extra motivation. And they had one of the top 10 picks in the NFL draft that year and passed over me, so there’s always a little bit of motivation. It's a rival, it's an AFC North game, and those are always fun games.''
A Browns victory over Roethlisberger is so rare that hell almost did freeze over the only time it's happened.
It was Dec. 10, 2009, the coldest day on record in a Browns-Steelers clash. As subzero windchills gusted in off Lake Erie, Eric Mangini's defense pounded a frozen Roethlisberger into submission. The Browns sacked him eight times en route to a 13-6 victory over the defending Super Bowl champs to hand them their fifth straight loss. Not only that, it snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Steelers and dashed their hopes of returning to the playoffs that year.
"It was probably one of the coldest games I've ever played in,'' said Roethlisberger. "I just remember the wind. You couldn't wait for the series to be over so you could go sit on the heated bench. That was a crazy game, Thursday night. Wintery. I remember the weather more than anything that game. Obviously losing hurt too.''
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton was the Steelers' defensive backs coach that game, but remembers Roethlisberger's 13 victories over the Browns during his tenure and his two Super Bowl victories far more than that one aberration.
"I can’t go back to Y.A. Tittle and some of those other quarterbacks but as far as the most elusive quarterback, I don’t know if there’s a better one,'' said Horton. "Fran (Tarkenton) was different because he could scramble and run around, but Fran didn’t take hits and shake hits like Ben does. I don’t think there’s been a quarterback in the league that has taken unabated shots and shrugged guys off, and made more big plays than Ben in the history of the league.''
He said Tarkentton and Roger Staubach would run, but they were different type of quarterbacks.
"Ben’s probably the biggest, strongest, most mobile quarterback (I've seen),'' said Horton. "I told our players, he was a shortstop in baseball; you’d think he would be a pitcher. He was a point guard in basketball; you’d think he would be the center. And he punts left-footed. So this guy is the most athletic guy that we’ll face, meaning total package of completeness.”
And with Roethlisberger under center, one can just never count out the Steelers, who are 23-5 over the Browns since 1999. They started out 0-4, but have won four of their last six -- including two straight -- to pull into a three-way tie for second-place in the AFC North at 4-6 behind the 7-4 Bengals.
A major reason is that Roethlisberger is just getting warmed up. He threw eight touchdown passes in his first seven games -- but nine in his last three, including four last week in a 37-27 victory over the Lions and four more in a 55-31 loss to New England.
In fact, Roethlisberger -- who denied rumors last week that wants out of Pittsburgh -- is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week thanks to his 367 yards and four TD passes against Detroit and their 30th-ranked pass defense.
"it always seems like it’s something going on that he has to deal with, whether it’s between him or a coach or whatever the case may be. But the one constant denominator has been Big Ben back there behind the center,'' said Jackson. "They've had some problems in years past and I’m sure this year, but they’ve had some good guys go down. Missing (center Maurkice) Pouncey has been huge. But Big Ben as of late has been rallying those guys together. They’re still the Pittsburgh Steelers and he's 15-1 against us.''
While the Browns were busy praising Roethlisberger all week, he had a few bouquets for the Browns defense as well.
"They're an incredibly good defense, from top to bottom, up front, in the back end, everywhere,'' said Roethlisberger. "This is a huge challenge for us -- the the biggest and toughest test we’re going to face to date. This is not going to be easy.''
The biggest and toughest test to date?
"When you talk about all the personnel, I don’t think there’s a weakness in the defense,'' he said. "I don’t think that there’s one specific spot that you can say, ‘We’ve got to attack,’ because every single area on that defense is a strength for them, in my eyes and in our opinion.
"The big boys, they do a good job of clogging the run, getting after the pass, they have some really good outside linebacker/d-end guys in (Jabaal) Sheard and (Paul) Kruger that get after it and kind of wreak havoc and get sacks and in the back end. Joe (Haden) is playing as good as any cornerback in this league, and DQ in the middle is always rock solid. It's a good all-around defense.''
The Steelers do present some opportunities for guys to get their flagging sack totals up. Roethlisberger has been sacked 36 times this season for second most in the NFL behind Ryan Tannehill's 41. Conversely, the Browns are tied for eighth in the league with 31 sacks, but had none last week against Dalton. What's more, Paul Kruger has only 2.5 this season and Barkevious Mingo leads the team with four, but has only one in his last six games.
In addition to being without their starting center, the Steelers have a new starting left tackle in 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum, who's 6-3, 300. It might be the week for Mingo to bust out of his slump.
"When you get your opportunity to get him down you've got to get him down,'' said Desmond Bryant. "He's very good at throwing the ball even when he's got a guy hanging on his legs. He's very good at flicking the ball away so you've got to try to get his arms.''
Added T.J. Ward, "Make sure you hold on tight, but don't come in out of control, because he’ll make you miss too.''
While Roethlisberger has been cranking up the TD machine lately, the Browns have sprung a leak in their fourth-ranked pass defense. They're No. 4 overall -- but dead-last in the NFL in red zone defense allowing 19 touchdowns in 28 possessions for 67.9%.
"Our goals are, first of all, not to let them score, and then to hold them to field goals,'' said Horton, who's defense has surrendered 14 TD passed the past five games after two in the first five. "That's what we want. That's what we pride ourselves on.''
Roethlisberger's elusiveness puts a strain on the defensive backs, who have to cover forever when he does his Houdini act.
"That is the thing,'' said Haden, who will cover top wideout Antonio Brown. "He makes it a whole lot harder because you think you got the first route covered and then it is just a completely different scramble. When they are scrambling that is not a route. You just got to run around, follow and chase people around so he makes it difficult."
Horton has witnessed all too often Roethlisberger wriggling free and hitting one of his receivers --- Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, or red-zone king Jerricho Cotchery -- for a big gain.
"I remember games where he just smiled at it,'' said Horton. "He's a unique guy, where they would laugh at plays, meaning, ‘Ha, ha, ha; we got ‘em again.’ They’re a unique bunch in that their wide receivers thrive on getting open after contact and going up the field and creating plays that are really school-yard basketball plays: Go behind the Subaru and take a left, and I’ll hit you. They make a ton of big plays that way.”
The Browns are hoping not enough to make it 16-1.