The Steelers finally got Ben Roethlisberger back in the lineup on Sunday, and after a slow start, he finished the day with 257 yards passing, 3 TDs, and an 18-point victory to his credit in front of a loud home crowd that far outnumbered the 20 protesters on hand. Here are 10 thoughts on Sunday’s Steelers-Browns duel at Heinz Field.
1. It was a big day for Big Ben, and the Pittsburgh crowd (at least those in attendance on Sunday) seemed mostly to have absolved him of his disastrous offseason and four-game, league-mandated time-out. For now.
Roethlisberger said he felt very emotional in receiving such a warm response, and as long as he continues to say and do the right things and play like he’s capable of playing, the Milledgeville incident will continue to become less and less of an issue locally. Once he goes on the road, however, that’s going to be a different story, but we’ll have to wait and see the level opposing fans are willing to take it to.
Personally, I think it’s going to be nasty, more so at the homes of Steeler rivals such as Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the Buffalos of the world.
But at least for now, the local fan reaction seems to be a non-issue. For the most part, he appears to have been accepted with open arms. He should thank his 3-1 teammates for diffusing that potential PR bomb over the past month.
2. As far as his work on the field, Roethlisberger was predictably rusty and slow-starting, leading the team to only seven first-half points and leaning heavily on Rashard Mendenhall. But as the game wore on, Roethlisberger and OC Bruce Arians opened things up, hitting on five pass plays of 20+ yards, including consecutive plays of 50 and 36 yards.
On the afternoon, Big Ben finished 16-of-27 for 257 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 0 sacks, and a QB rating of 112.7. True, he was not facing the toughest defense the league could offer, but all things considered, it was a nice start after all that time off.
3. As predicted, Hines Ward was more than happy to see Roethlisberger back behind center, reeling in five passes for 54 yards and a TD after catching only 12 balls in the first four games combined.
The other Steeler pass-catchers were equally enthused with the return of #7, as Mike Wallace did his usual big-play thing with a 50-yard grab and a 29-yard touchdown, and Heath Miller made a splash with a 36-yard catch and 14-yard touchdown. Even rookie Emmanuel Sanders got into the action with his first two career catches for a total of 37 yards.
It should go without saying, but getting Roethlisberger back is invaluable to a Steeler passing game that was dead last in the NFL entering Sunday’s action. The Steelers had been averaging 136 yards per game through the air, a number Ben easily topped by 121 yards in his comeback. It makes things infinitely tougher for opponents when they have to respect the Steelers’ passing game – something that just wasn’t happening in the first month of the season.
4. The Steeler running game, eighth in the league at 133.5 YPG entering the contest, actually had a slightly below-average day against the Browns, at least by their standards. Mendenhall and Co. toted the rock 35 times on Sunday, putting up 121 yards as a team for a 3.5 yards per carry average and falling short of their 4.3 average per carry so far in 2010.
I’m not on board with this theory that the Steelers should run more than they pass like they did in September now that Roethlisberger has returned. They’re dealing with a totally different dynamic at quarterback than what they were dealing with through the first four weeks…of course the play-calling is going to change. Roethlisberger is a huge asset to the aerial attack. You don’t waste that turning him into a glorified handoff machine and game manager.
The number of running plays will balance out if Roethlisberger can build an early lead and the Steelers can then take the air out of the ball to sit on their opponents in the second half. That’s how you get the running game involved more: give it a lead to work with.
5. James Harrison had a particularly violent game on Sunday, dropping Browns left and right and probably earning himself a lighter paycheck as a result of forthcoming fines.
“You don’t want to injure people. I don’t want to injure anybody,” Harrison said. “But I’m not opposed to hurting anybody.”
I’d say that’s a pretty strong candidate for The Greatest Understatement of All Time.
So what’s the guess on Harrison’s fine? Five grand? $10,000?
6. Considering his team lost 28-10, it sounds fairly crazy to give some credit to first-time Browns starter Colt McCoy. But despite getting sacked five times and hit nine others, McCoy absolutely did not quit, coming within 19 yards of a rare 300-yard passing day against the Steelers and pulling four plays of 20+ yards out of his hat.
He did have some happy feet, especially in the early part of the game, but I think he made some nice throws and did not get overwhelmed by the situation, which most observers could easily describe as overwhelming – and that was BEFORE he lost his wildcat option in Josh Cribbs and WR Mohamed Massaquoi.
The Browns don’t have a lot of playmakers on offense, and that certainly makes life a lot more difficult for whoever is their signal-caller on a given week. But for 60 minutes, I can honestly say I didn’t hate what I saw from McCoy. That’s about as good of an endorsement that I can give to a Browns QB.
As for the Steeler defense, they were their usual solid selves but did have some lapses in concentration. Maybe it was a lack of respect for the opponent, maybe it was boredom, but they just did not suffocate the Browns like I thought they would. Cleveland was able to move the ball at times, although it was usually it meaningless situations. The bottom line: if you finish the day allowing 10 points and racking up five sacks, two picks, nine hits of the QB, three tackels for loss, a fumble recovery, and seven passes defended, that’s a pretty solid day.
7. Ridiculous Announcer Comment of the Week: Solomon Wilcots favorably compared Browns RB Peyton Hillis, a 7th round pick in the 2008 draft who’s already on his second team, to RB Jim Taylor, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, 6-time All-Pro, and 1962 NFL MVP. By the way, did I mention that both running backs happen to be white? I guess that fact is just a wild coincidence, since Hillis’ apparently-unique style of play didn’t remind Wilcots of any running back who’s played in the NFL in the last 40 years.
8. So what else was happening in the AFC North on Sunday? Well, the Cincinnati Bengals were sitting at home, so they had no opportunity to disappoint their fans yet again. And the Baltimore Ravens were busy in New England, losing in overtime to Tom Bieber and Deion Branch in an overtime game that was two minutes away from rare “tie” status. Alas, the Steelers are now in first place all alone at 4-1, with the Ravens 4-2, Bengals 2-3, and Browns 1-5. Good news all around.
Next week, the Browns travel to New Orleans for a date with the World Champs, the Bengals visit the Georgia Dome to take on the 4-2 Falcons, and the Ravens get a “Virtual Bye” in the form of the Buffalo Bills.
9. It’s now time to look ahead to next week, when Big Ben takes his redemption tour to the road for a contest at Miami against the Dolphins.
The Dolphins are currently 3-2, and all but one of their games (a 41-14 loss to the Patriots) was relatively close. They’ve beaten the Bills (15-10), Vikings (14-10, in Minnesota), and on Sunday, the Packers (23-20 in OT at Green Bay). That’s two fairly impressive road wins at tough places to play, in my opinion. There’s no doubt that these guys can hang.
The Dolphins entered Sunday 12th in passing offense, 16th in rushing offense, 4th in passing defense, and 21st in rushing defense in the NFL. Based only on those numbers, it would appear that the Steelers should have little problems stopping the run but might get a good challenge airing it out.
WR Brandon Marshall, who was targeted 17 times by Chad Henne on Sunday, catching 10 of them, will be the Steelers’ biggest concern. Last season, while still a Bronco, Marshall lit up the Steelers’ secondary to the tune of 11 catches and 112 yards in a 28-10 Steeler win.
The Dolphins were actually the last team Roethlisberger faced in a regular-season contest before Sunday’s Cleveland game. In their January, 2010 meeting, the Steelers came away with a 30-24 win in Miami behind 220 yards and 3 TDs from Big Ben, 94 yards rushing from Mendenhall, and three interceptions of Dolphin QBs Henne and Tyler Thigpen.
10. Last but not least, it’s Sad Trombone time!
Don Spagnolo is the founder of the Pittsburgh sports and entertainment blog Mondesi’s House.
He can be reached via email at Don.Spagnolo@cbsradio.com and on Twitter @mondesishouse