Sunday, December 07, 2014

Paging 'Big Game Ben'

Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, 9:10 p.m.

Nov 30, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passes the ball against the New Orleans Saints during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Saints won 35-32. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It's time.

Ben Roethlisberger, great as he is, hasn't played big in a big game since, what, 2010? Not coincidentally, that was the last season in which the Steelers won a playoff game.

That was a long time ago.

Roethlisberger speaks openly of winning several more Super Bowl rings. Five, I believe, is the goal. Which means he needs three more. Which means he'd be well-advised to jump-start his dormant clutch gene, starting Sunday in Cincinnati.

The Steelers' division-title hopes are all but cooked if they lose. Theoretically, the quarterback position is their biggest advantage against the Andy Dalton-led Bengals.

Roethlisberger doesn't need to be six-touchdown great. He needs to be really good, a standard he has fallen far short of in the past three weeks — and in many of the team's biggest games in recent years.

Since the Super Bowl run of 2010, the artist formerly known as Big Game Ben has participated in one playoff game. He went 22 of 40 with a touchdown and an interception at Denver. He had the ball in his hands for the final shot of regulation — just the way he likes it — and heaved an airball. Tim Tebow outplayed him that day.

A year later, in 2012, the Steelers were in excellent position to cement a playoff spot when Roethlisberger returned from injury. He was promptly outplayed, in succession, by Philip Rivers, Tony Romo and Dalton.

In the loss at Dallas, Roethlisberger threw a hideous overtime interception. A week later, in what amounted to a play-in game against the Bengals, he went 14 of 28 with a touchdown and two interceptions, including a reckless late-game pick that led to Cincinnati's winning field goal.

Dalton wasn't exactly Joe Montana that day, but he made the biggest throw: a small-window conversion to A.J. Green on the winning drive.

Last year, bolstered by new freedom in a no-huddle offense (something the Steelers might want to resurrect in Cincinnati), Roethlisberger played wonderfully down the stretch. But the Steelers needed miracles just to be in position to back into the playoffs. It never felt like they participated in a big game because they were such a long shot after digging themselves a 2-6 hole.

This season, all things seemed possible after the Steelers rolled up 124 points in a three-game homestand to improve to 6-3. Roethlisberger staged possibly the greatest back-to-back passing performances in history, throwing for 12 touchdowns against the Colts and Ravens.

Next up were the Jets, Titans and Saints, three of the league's worst defenses.

Almost unbelievably, the Steelers failed to score a touchdown in the first half of any of those games, and Roethlisberger was outplayed by Michael Vick and (arguably) Zach Mettenberger. And that was before Drew Brees came to town and threw the football equivalent of a perfect game while Roethlisberger heaved fastballs off the top of the backstop all day.

To borrow Mike Tomlin's new favorite phrase, none of this happens “in a vacuum.” There were many reasons for the Steelers' failures over the past three games and at critical junctures over the past three seasons.

This discussion, however, pertains to the $100 million quarterback, and Roethlisberger spoke a simple truth in the locker room Wednesday: “I need to play better.”

The past three outings have been hard to watch. Roethlisberger has thrown four touchdown passes — one a desperation heave late in the Jets game, two others garbage-time gimmes against the Saints — and five interceptions. And it's not like he was under constant siege. He was just bad, although he found a way to gut out the win at Tennessee.

It's difficult to pinpoint the problem. Roethlisberger injured his hand in the Saints game (can't you hear Bill Cowher on the CBS set Sunday, saying, “Ben does not have a broken hamate bone, OK?”), but he was 2 of 8 before that. He was throwing passes Daniel McCullers would have needed a ladder to touch.

Maybe the man just figured he was invincible after his 12-touchdown binge. Some of his mistakes would indicate as much.

Consider two insane first-down throws that wound up in opposition hands: a balloon ball intended for Markus Wheaton amid a sea of Jets defenders and a bomb into double coverage (for Darrius Heyward-Bey, of all people) against the Saints. Both showed remarkable hubris. Both came at critical times and proved to be killer plays. The end-zone interception at Tennessee nearly proved fatal, as well.

None of it matters now. The Steelers control their fate in the AFC North. If they win out, the crown is theirs. Everybody has to get “a hand in the pile” (thanks, Mike), and it has to start with the return of Big Game Ben.

It really is time.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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