Big Ben rescues Steelers again; with defense banged up, he'll have to continue

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Ben Roethlisberger gets a playmaker back on offense with the return of RB Rashard Mendenhall. (US Presswire)  
Ben Roethlisberger gets a playmaker back on offense with the return of RB Rashard Mendenhall. (US Presswire)  

PITTSBURGH -- If you're the Pittsburgh Steelers, this is what you like about your latest victory: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still Ben Roethlisberger, rescuing the club with another fourth-quarter comeback, just as he has so many times before.

But if you're the Steelers, this is what should concern you: Not only did your defense blow another fourth-quarter lead; it just subtracted two of its key playmakers.

Linebacker LaMarr Woodley is sidelined because of a hamstring injury. Troy Polamalu aggravated a calf injury that kept him out of the previous two games. And while coach Mike Tomlin wouldn't speculate, it's hard to imagine either playing in Thursday's game at Tennessee.

No wonder Tomlin said he was "thankful" for the come-from-behind 16-14 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles, a club with a habit this season of overcoming opponents in the fourth quarter. But not this time and not against this team because ... well, because there's only one Ben Roethlisberger, and few quarterbacks make as many big plays in big games as Big Ben.

Down by one point, with just over six minutes left, Roethlisberger drove the Steelers nearly the length of the field -- completing 4 of 5 passes and converting two key third downs -- to set up Shaun Suisham for the winning field goal.

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While Suisham will be hailed as the hero, the difference for Pittsburgh -- again -- was Roethlisberger. He played his best when his team needed it most, and stop me if you've heard this before.

"I think all of the guys you can make an argument for being franchise quarterbacks -- that's the common tie that binds them," Tomlin said. "They come in different forms, shapes and sizes and skill sets if you will -- some of them are pocket passers; some of them are mobile -- but the reality is that if they're in that discussion it's because they deliver when it's time to deliver. No question, I don't care whom you're talking to, he's in the discussion."

He doesn't have to convince me. I've seen the guy deliver winning throws or lead winning drives too many times. In fact, if I had one game to win, Roethlisberger is one of the two or three quarterbacks I would choose -- with New England's Tom Brady another. The guy simply excels when he must.

And on Sunday he had to.

For three-and-a-half quarters he and his teammates struggled to get their act together, with receivers dropping five passes and Jerricho Cotchery tripping over the hash at the 4-yard line when he appeared headed for a certain touchdown shortly before halftime.

In the end, though, it didn't matter because Pittsburgh won, and Philadelphia didn't, and while the Steelers can tell themselves -- as wide receiver Antonio Brown did -- that "we left a lot of plays out there," they still prevailed.

And they prevailed because of their quarterback, who just produced his 25th winning drive in a fourth quarter or overtime and beat an NFC opponent at Heinz Field for the 14th time in 15 tries.

"I like to have the ball in my hands," Roethlisberger said, "and as an offense we want to control it."

That's one way of putting it. But wide receiver Emanuel Sanders, who made a critical third-down catch on the last series, had another.

"We all knew we had a job to do," he said. "We knew the team had to be put on our backs at that time, and we knew we were going to seize the moment. But that's what this game is about. It's all about those moments.

"We were sitting here at 1-2 [now 2-2], and the moment was out. It was our time to go down and drive. Everyone wants to be the guy to make that play to win the game, and everybody contributed."

He has that right. He made a third-down catch. So did Brown. Rashard Mendenhall, appearing for the first time this season, had four runs on the final possession. Isaac Redman had four more. Then, of course, there was Roethlisberger.

"We just need to play like the Pittsburgh Steelers," he said of that final drive. "We figured it's now or never."

Well, he played like he always does, and so did his teammates on offense. But it's that Pittsburgh defense that bears watching. Pittsburgh is always in the mix for the AFC North championship, but it's there because of Roethlisberger and its defense -- and it's that defense that allowed Philadelphia to drive 79 yards and convert two fourth downs on a touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter.

Of course, it's also that defense that rescued the Steelers in the first half, forcing two Michael Vick fumbles -- including one on at the goal line ... on first down, no less ... that short-circuited a sure score.

But that defense just lost two starters, and while Tomlin declined to elaborate on the extent of injuries to Woodley and Polamalu, you might want to remember that it was a sore hamstring that sidelined Woodley most of the second half of 2011.

So stay tuned, people. It's a long season, and while Roethlisberger hasn't changed, the Steelers' defense has.

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