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Joe Starkey

Starkey: Can Ben regain late-game magic?

| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 10:51 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger celebrates after throwing a second-quarter touchdown to Heath Miller against the Cowboys on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger celebrates after throwing a second-quarter touchdown to Heath Miller against the Cowboys on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Having just completed a slice of pizza, Ben Roethlisberger was digging into a chocolate chip cookie before practice Thursday when he was presented with a sticky topic: those killer interceptions against the Cowboys and Bengals last season.

The larger-scale issue is Ben's late-game magic.

Where has it gone?

Going back to the final drive of Super Bowl XLV against the Packers, something's been missing. Last-second shots that used to tickle twine are smacking iron.

Seeing as these Steelers aren't good enough to bury many teams, this would be a wonderful year for Big Ben to regain his big-moment touch. Nobody makes the winning shot all the time, but if this season is anything like last — when the Steelers played nine games decided by four or fewer points — Roethlisberger will get his chances.

“I'd like to think that I'm still a fourth-quarter, last-drive kind of guy,” he said.

I'd like to think so, too. In fact, I do think so. But recent evidence is scarce, save for strong finishes against the Giants and Eagles last season. It always seems to be the other guy — even Tim Tebow — who steals the final act.

Roethlisberger never was going to put up pinball numbers like the NFL's glamour quarterbacks, so he built his blood-stained resume on the strength of gutsy wins. Often, they were dramatic comebacks in places like Baltimore, San Diego, Cleveland, Dallas, Jacksonville and, of course, Tampa, Fla., in Super Bowl XLIII.

Over the past two seasons, however, he has executed just four late game-winning drives. That's the fewest in any two-year span of Roethlisberger's career.

Myriad factors contribute to such statistics. The Steelers hammered teams in 2011, for example, and didn't need much late-game heroism.

But consider these three examples and how three Steelers seasons might be remembered very differently had Roethlisberger connected late:

• Super Bowl XLV: Trailing the Packers, 31-25, with two minutes left, the Steelers started from their 13 with no timeouts. A near-impossible situation, for sure, but what really seemed impossible for a quarterback who'd carved his Super Bowl legend out of a similar predicament and had beaten the Packers a year earlier on an 86-yard march in the final 2:06?

Alas, Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace failed to connect multiple times, and the Steelers made it only as far as their 33.

• At Denver in the 2011 playoffs, in a tie game, the Steelers got the ball at their 24 with 1 minute, 37 seconds left and two timeouts. They advanced to the Denver 45, but two sacks torpedoed the drive, setting the stage for Tebow in what likely will go down as the greatest game of his NFL career.

• In the 15th game last season, Roethlisberger had two chances to put his team in position to win — or at least to avoid losing.

On the first, the Steelers took possession at their 46 with 3:18 left and the score tied. They moved just 18 yards and did not complete a pass. Shaun Suisham then missed a risky 53-yard attempt.

On the second, with 44 seconds left from his 11, Roethlisberger completed a pass to the 29, then got greedy. His insane heave to Wallace was intercepted. The Bengals kicked the winning field goal. The Steelers' season was toast.

“Of course you want the ball in those situations,” Roethlisberger said. “I pride myself on being that guy. You want the chance to win the game, and when it doesn't happen, it burns at you and makes you want to prove you can do it next time.

“I know that, recently, the last couple, I haven't been able to capitalize on those chances.”

Another one was last year's season-opener in Denver. Trailing 25-19, the Steelers took over on their 20 with 2:18 left. It seemed like the perfect situation for Big Ben. Only it wasn't. Tracy Porter picked off his third pass and returned it for the game-clinching touchdown.

Despite all this, if a similar situation were to occur in Sunday's opener against Tennessee, I'd feel pretty good about the Steelers' chances. Roethlisberger still is the quarterback I'd want in such a scenario.

I just need updated material to support my argument.

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