Sunday, December 26, 2004
By John Clayton
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger may be the headliner of the Steelers, but he's not the total story in Pittsburgh.
That became clear when pain in Roethlisberger's ribs and maybe even his sternum caused him to grimace and eventually leave the game. Roethlisberger flicked a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jerame Tuman with 6:30 remaining in the third quarter to all but seal what was an easy 20-7 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Linebacker Terrell Suggs landed on Roethlisberger after the play and drew a flag for the late hit. Roethlisberger was hurt. Visions of a Super Bowl season flashed before the eyes of those Steelers fans trying to celebrate the clinching of home-field advantage during the playoffs.
Terrell Suggs and the Ravens got to Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday.Pain has been a constant for the Steelers all year. In a victory over Dallas, they lost Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton.
They've played without Plaxico Burress, Kendrell Bell, Chad Scott, Clark Haggans and countless other starters but won 14 of 15 games. Even Roethlisberger, drafted to sit and study during his rookie season, got to play when Tommy Maddox injured his elbow in Week 2 against Baltimore.
Big Ben returned to the field the next offensive series despite his ribs bothering him so much that he had to be taken to the hospital after the game. The first play was a handoff to Jerome Bettis. The second was a pass to Burress for 26 yards. The pain got worse, and coach Bill Cowher knew it was time to rest his tough 241-pound rookie.
"It really bothered him," Cowher said of Roethlisberger's ribs. "I saw him throw the ball well, but he grimaced every time he threw."
That was it for Roethlisberger's day but not for the Steelers. They buried the Ravens with running plays. In the second half alone, the Steelers ran the ball 30 of 35 plays, gaining 108 yards and making the Ravens' physical defense look quite pedestrian.
"It was a matter of pounding on them," Bettis said. "We've been doing it all year long, so it made no sense for us to stop now. We got a boost with Plaxico Burress in there making some plays. It boils down to us running the football. That is how we are going to win football games. There comes a point in every game where you have to test their will and see if they can stop you. We ran it, we ran it and we ran it. I really think that turned the game in our favor."
Sure, Roethlisberger adds a different dimension to the Steelers offense. His strong arm and uncharacteristic savvy for a rookie enables him to make big plays off play-action fakes. But the heart of the Steelers is the running attack and the ability to stop the run. The Steelers rushed 183 yards on 42 carries, including another amazing 117-yard effort by Bettis. The Ravens, who have less options on offense than the Steelers, had 71 yards on 21 carries.
As for Roethlisberger's health, his status is uncertain though the injuries don't appear to be serious. All Cowher, whose team also suffered the loss of cornerback Deshea Townsend with a broken hand, would say was that Roethlisberger hurt his ribs. He wouldn't speculate if it was cartilage damage or cracks. Those things will be sorted out over the week.
Roethlisberger's 13-game winning streak as the starter has allowed the Steelers the luxury of healing. They clinched home-field advantage, are 14-1, and don't have a significant game scheduled until they play in the AFC Divisional round.
"I have no concerns about Ben," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He's still a rookie. Some people seem to lose that thought. We are winning games. You really don't expect a rookie to do what he's done. He's a good rookie. He's going to make some mistakes, but the guy has played flawless. He plays hurt. He's the reason we are what we are."
The reason the Steelers are what they are is that they've copied the Patriots' model. They are a team. Bettis accepted a backup role to Duce Staley, but when Staley pulled a hamstring, Bettis came off the bench to run like a 25-year-old. Haggans was the Steelers' best pass-rushing outside linebacker, but he was out with a hamstring injury. James Harrison has taken his place and constantly pressured Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller. Willie Williams fills in for Scott. The story goes on and on.
"We're winning a lot of games with a lot of guys hurt," linebacker Joey Porter said. "That sets up for a good situation. Now, we are getting all those guys back for the playoffs. We'll be coming into the playoffs with a healthy Jerome Bettis and a healthy Duce Staley. That's is priceless. We'll have a healthy Plaxico Burress, a healthy Hines Ward, a healthy Antwaan Randle El, a healthy Clark Haggans. Anybody who has any nicks and bruises has a chance to get healthy."
And pity those teams who come to Pittsburgh. Those coming have to prepare for the cold and the physical play. In fact, the Steelers' defense has a little bit of an attitude. The unit's members are angry that defensive end Aaron Smith was snubbed for the Pro Bowl after having one of the better pass-rushing seasons for a 3-4 defensive end. Porter was particularly mad about thoughts the Ravens had a better, more physical defense than the Steelers.
"We don't have the media hype," Porter said. "You talk how physical the Baltimore Ravens defense is, and they aren't even the No. 1 defense. We are. That's how it's been going against us all year. We accepted it. It's like we had to prove it to everybody. All year, we had the No. 1 defense, but you still continue to talk about how great Baltimore defense is. We have a lot of guys who believe in the system."
It was a matter of pounding on them. We've been doing it all year long, so it made no sense for us to stop now. We got a boost with Plaxico Burress in there making some plays. It boils down to us running the football. That is how we are going to win football games. ”
The Steelers defense held the Ravens to 248 yards, lowering its season total to 257.8, best in the league. But the Steelers' offense made a statement, too. Burress' return helped -- believe it or not -- the running game. On their first offensive possession, Roethlisberger hit Burress with a 36-yard touchdown pass after the Ravens stacked the middle of the field to stop the run. Later in the first half, Burress caught a 35-yard pass. Pretty soon, the Ravens removed a safety from the tackle box and played Cover 2 zone.
Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt then started the second half with 12 running plays in a 14-play, 71-yard touchdown drive that gave Pittsburgh a 17-7 lead. The drive consumed 8:34 and took some of the feistiness out of the Ravens.
"We always talk about the third quarter, whether it is the first possession on offense, the first possession on defense, the kickoff or the kickoff return," Cowher said. "That to me is as important as there is because you are re-establishing what momentum there was and what you're trying to establish in the second half. To come out, take the ball down the field using up the clock and converting a fourth down was important."
The story about the Steelers is their physical play on offense and defense. They are Steel Town tough even though the steel mills are mostly gone in Western Pennsylvania. Roethlisberger aches, but he'll be back in three weeks. The Steelers will have Bettis and Staley and even Harrison, a backup, who looked like a Pro Bowl linebacker.
"You've got to wait until the end of the movie," Porter said. "Superman always wins in the end."
The ribs might be Roethlisberger's Kryptonite, but the Steelers won in the end. It's a pretty good movie.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.