Kovacevic: No bye, no break for Big Ben

| Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO — Let's dispense with any nonsense right away: Ben Roethlisberger can play, should play and will play. He'll play Saturday against St. Louis. He'll play the following week in Cleveland. And he'll play in what now looks to be a wild-card game.

He's the Steelers' most pivotal player, and, in case people aren't paying attention, his team hardly is pivoting toward dominance. These aren't the recent Colts, Saints, Packers or Steelers, for that matter, to be pondering going into sleep mode for a couple weeks, then suddenly awakening their inner giant when the alarm goes off. It's up to Roethlisberger to get these guys going and keep them going.

He needs to be out there.

And judging by Mike Tomlin's news conference Tuesday, a few hours after the 20-3 loss the previous night at Candlestick Park, be plenty sure he will. Unless you can find a better way to interpret Tomlin omitting his quarterback when rattling off an injury list that included spare lineman Al Woods. Or Tomlin's odd acknowledgement that he barely discussed Roethlisberger's health with him after the game Monday.

"He was no worse for the wear, as far as I could tell," Tomlin recalled of that conversation. "We talked about the way the game unfolded, the way we usually do."

Tomlin is making the right call. He's giving an erratic 10-4 team its best chance to reach the Super Bowl, despite ceding control of the AFC's top seed Monday, despite maddening underachievers at multiple positions — hello, Lawrence Timmons — and, yes, despite a hobbled quarterback.

Roethlisberger has a left high-ankle sprain, one that takes several weeks to fully heal. But those are weeks the Steelers don't have. If he could improve significantly by sitting out a few days, that would be wonderful. But precedent shows he can't. This is the quarterback the Steelers have now, and it's the quarterback they'll have a month from now, no matter how much time he spends in oxygen chambers and hot tubs.

I'll still take that over Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon.

More important, Roethlisberger showed he's not all that bad. He was able to play in a high-stakes game against the NFL's No. 1 defense, pass for 330 yards and improve his mobility as the game moved on. As San Francisco defensive tackle Ray McDonald flatly observed late Monday, "We thought he could move around as much as he usually can."

That's the main reason, I'll bet, that Tomlin was fine with starting Roethlisberger.

"We understand we open ourselves up to judgment when we make decisions like that," Tomlin said. "We live with that."

But that doesn't mean Tomlin, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and Roethlisberger are going about this entirely right.

For one, all concerned need to come up with an offensive plan that suits Roethlisberger's limitations and stick to it.

Rewind to the Tennessee victory in early October, when Roethlisberger had a less severe ankle injury, for the blueprint: He stays in a tight pocket, spots a receiver right away and snaps off a quick throw. Preferably from the shotgun.

All of that was in place for the latter part of the previous game against the Browns and the first half against the 49ers, and it worked. The line held its ground, and Roethlisberger had plenty of good looks. But Roethlisberger inexplicably started winging it in the second half. He was scrambling, trying to buy time for Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown on deep routes and, ultimately, getting himself buried in the backfield.

There's the real risk of getting hurt anew, much more than aggravating the ankle. All it takes is one big sack, and there goes the shoulder or wrist.

Tomlin and Arians never should have let the plan go astray.

Another reason for that: Roethlisberger was just 4 of 14 on pass attempts of 15 yards or longer, including all three interceptions. The ankle won't allow him to plant the way he usually does.

All concerned also need to decide who's boss.

Tomlin never should have let Roethlisberger on the field in the final minutes with the Steelers down 17. And Roethlisberger never should have lobbied for it once he saw Batch warming up. That was one part stupidity, two parts silly bravado.

This was Roethlisberger's version Monday: "When Coach tried to get me out, I said, 'No, I'm not putting you in that situation, and I'm not quitting on our guys.' "

He said no?

Tomlin should try that in such a situation.

There are few who don't admire Roethlisberger's toughness. It's legitimate and praiseworthy. But that was outright selfish on his part, a symbolic look-at-me moment, and it didn't help anyone.

There's a smart way to do this.

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Steelers vs. 49ers December 19, 2011

Steelers vs. 49ers  December 19, 2011

San Francisco defeats the Steelers, 20-3.

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