Kovacevic: Big Ben makes big stand
Ben Roethlisberger stood in the long shadow of the Steelers' goal posts late Thursday night, not a soul nearby, and simply watched as Antonio Brown caught his pass and took off.
Then, as Brown ran farther and farther down the right sideline, Roethlisberger turned to Heinz Field's big scoreboard for a better view of the end of the play.
Turned gingerly, too.
One foot at a time, to avoid further tweaking to the high left ankle he'd badly sprained an hour earlier, to the injury he later described as "the worst pain I've ever felt in my life."
By the time the prodigious Brown was done with his 79-yard touchdown, the one that drove a stake in the Cleveland Browns with 2:52 left, no one was celebrating with Roethlisberger, no one congratulating him. Everyone had run downfield to help Brown.
Not that he minded.
"I'm glad he made it," Roethlisberger said. "I'm not sure if I'd have been able to get down there if we had to run another play."
Roethlisberger laughed, but his reaction after the play might have told this story best: He bent forward, put his hands on his knees, looked to the ground, then glanced back up at the scoreboard one more time.
Steelers 14, Browns 3.
It's a fine line, to borrow the terminology of one William Laird Cowher, when it comes to playing through injury. It's the line between bravery and foolishness, between helping the team win and hurting the team in the long run.
But it's never been a blurry line for the NFL's toughest quarterback: The only line that matters is the finish line.
"Ben's the toughest guy on this team," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
"Takes a lot to get that man out of the game," backup quarterback Charlie Batch said. "You need a stretcher."
Roethlisberger's ability to overcome injury is, depending on the viewpoint, the stuff of legend, the object of ridicule or somewhere in between.
Sorry, not this one.
With 6:08 left in the second quarter, Cleveland defensive tackle Scott Paxson drove hard — but cleanly — into Roethlisberger's left thigh. That caused the leg to contort hideously and the ankle, in particular, to buckle in a way that silenced even the vendors. Those who could see TV replays gasped.
But no one, from the sound of it, was more horrified than Roethlisberger.
"I thought my leg was broken, to be honest," he said. "I thought I'd look down and see my foot coming out or something. I didn't know what to think."
Roethlisberger stayed down for about three minutes, then was escorted to the locker room.
No way was he coming back.
Even Roethlisberger's most ardent critics, those who call him "drama queen" and other insults related to milking his various injuries, even they had to be sure this was Batch's game — maybe his season — to win or lose.
Batch sure thought so.
"Grabbed my helmet right away," he said.
At halftime, though, X-rays showed no break. There was no MRI, which would show a far more detailed image of the ligaments. Those will come today, and, given Roethlisberger's agonizing-just-to-watch limp afterward and declaration that his ankle "feels like it's going to explode," the news might worsen.
As it was at halftime, the Steelers' doctors gave their blessing, according to coach Mike Tomlin, and that was enough. With less than a minute before kickoff, Roethlisberger emerged from the tunnel and hastily zipped through warmup snaps and tosses.
"I had a lot of doubts if I'd get back out there," he said. "But I didn't want to let the team down."
When he took the field, the crowd stood and roared. But he could barely move, and a few throws were off target. On one play, he nearly fell on his face in executing a simple handoff to Rashard Mendenhall. But he adjusted, as he has before, staying in the pocket and working out of the shotgun. And he connected with Brown when it counted most, lifting the Steelers to a key victory that has them at an AFC-best 10-3.
His final tally was 16 of 21 completions for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
After Roethlisberger's reaction to the Brown touchdown, at least one person in the stadium noticed he was alone. That's when left tackle and longtime friend Max Starks trotted out to the field, where the two embraced.
"I saw everybody else was down there with Antonio," Starks said, "and I knew Ben would want to be down there, too. That play started with him."
Everything the Steelers do starts there.
Steelers vs. Browns December 8, 2011
The Steelers defeat Cleveland, 14-3, Thursday, December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field.
Columnist Dejan Kovacevic selects the game?s top performers:
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers QB: Forget the 16 of 21 for 280 yards and two TDs. There?s no one in the NFL tougher at his position.
William Gay, Steelers CB: His late interception was only part of another sterling coverage performance that included three passes defensed.
Antonio Brown, Steelers WR: His 79-yard TD with 2:52 left sealed it up, and he finished with five catches for 151 yards. And the guy didn?t start.