Kovacevic: Life without Ben? Cold reality
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A relentless rain whipped horizontally into the Heinz Field wind tunnel to greet the Steelers' faithful head-on Monday night, making it so cold, so uncomfortable that the concourses often had more occupants than the seats, that mothers wrapped children in multiple parkas, that men … actually kept their beer bellies under wraps.
And yet, none of it approached the chill sent through the 57,644 on hand by the third play of the third quarter of this comparatively hollow 16-13 overtime win over the completely horrible Kansas City Chiefs.
That's when Ben Roethlisberger went down.
The Steelers' quarterback, their franchise, their most valuable player by such a wide margin that there isn't a viable No. 2, was slammed into the grass by Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston — clean sack — then rose slowly and clutched his right shoulder, cringing with each step to the sideline.
First thought: No way. Not him. Not now, with things just getting good.
“When Ben first went down, I didn't really think too much of it,” left tackle Max Starks recalled later in a mostly reserved locker room. “Usually, if he's hurt bad, he'll stay down. But he asked to be picked up right away.”
Second thought …
“The way he was moving when he went off, yeah, you could see something was wrong.”
Third thought: Uh-oh.
There was word early Tuesday morning that Roethlisberger's shoulder was sprained rather than separated, which would be better, but nothing was firm. In the immediate aftermath, Mike Tomlin would say only that the shoulder was “being evaluated” and that Roethlisberger had been taken to a hospital for an MRI. No prognosis was given, nor a timetable.
But neither did it sound like anyone was solidly counting on having Roethlisberger for either of the two ridiculously essential games against the despised Ravens over the next three weeks.
As Mike Wallace put it, “When Ben doesn't come back in the game, you know it's pretty serious.”
If so, that means one of Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch will have to take this team through its toughest stretch.
In this game, Leftwich looked every bit like a man who'd stepped on the field in anger exactly once since 2009, completing 7 of 14 passes for 73 yards and misfiring terribly on most of the half.
“I haven't done it in a while,” he said, “but I'm sure if I have to do it, it'll be like riding a bike.”
Batch, in turn, hasn't even suited up for any games this season, and he functions in practice only as the opponents' quarterback. But Tomlin declined to name a possible starter if Roethlisberger is out, and it can't be ruled out that he'd go with the 37-year-old patriarch, if only because Batch started last Christmas Eve against the Rams and went 15 of 22 for 208 yards.
But let's not kid anyone: There's no QB controversy here. Only QB concerns.
And more than a few concerns beyond that, as well. The injury to Roethlisberger will overshadow all else Monday, but it probably shouldn't.
Not when the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles bulldozed relentlessly through the right side of the Steelers' line for most of his 100 yards, the same way the Bengals did a month ago before Dick LeBeau had to redraw schemes.
Not when the Steelers' rushing game didn't come close to matching that, Jonathan Dwyer struggling for 56 yards on 19 carries and Isaac Redman held to 21 after a brief benching for a careless fumble.
Not when the passing game — even with Roethlisberger — glaringly exposed how much Antonio Brown is missed. Mike Wallace used all his limbs for a circus catch on the lone touchdown, but he'd have only two other receptions. In general, the receivers put precious little daylight between themselves and a sticky Kansas City secondary.
Ben or no Ben, if the Steelers perform against Baltimore the way they did Monday, they'll get bombed by 30 or 40.
As it is, they're 6-3, the winning streak grew to a frail four, and the standings still look promising.
I asked James Harrison if this team, which has replaced so many parts effectively at so many times, thinks that way about the quarterback position.
“I tend to think so. I hope so,” he replied. “We'll see if we have to go without Ben. If that's the case, we'll move ahead.”
By the time Lawrence Timmons' elegant interception set up Shaun Suisham's winning kick, less than half the crowd remained, either too soaked or too stunned to stick around.
A bit fittingly on this night, right as Timmons celebrated, the press box announcer informed us all that Ryan Clark, the Steelers' best defensive player, was being checked for a possible second concussion in the past month. If that's the case — and he insisted again that he's “fine” — his chance of facing the Ravens should be about the same as Roethlisberger's.
That's some cold reality.
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