Clutch moments becoming old hat for Big Ben
PITTSBURGH – The Tennessee Titans called heads, the coin came up tails, and while 65,110 fans at Heinz Field roared their powerful roars and waved their Terrible Towels, Ben Roethlisberger(notes) sidled up to a ballboy and made a four-word request.
Get me my hat.
Roethlisberger and Holmes celebrate the second-quarter TD.
(Jason Miller/US Presswire)
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A brutally physical NFL season opener between the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans was deadlocked and headed for overtime late Thursday night, and the quarterback’s statement carried an unspoken but obvious tagline: Get me my hat, because I’m about to take us down the field for the winning points, and I want to cover up my sweaty hair when I do that postgame interview with Andrea Kremer.
And what did the ballboy do?
“He got me my hat,” Roethlisberger said about half an hour later as he undressed at his locker, grinning like a schoolboy who’d just drained a game-winning jumper at the recess bell.
Smart kid, that ballboy. Clutch dude, that quarterback. Right now, with apologies to the NFL’s two reigning greats in New England and Indy, is there any passer you’d rather have with the ball in his hands and the game on the line than Big Ben?
Not on Thursday: Just as he’d predicted, Roethlisberger completed 5-of-7 passes for 60 yards in Pittsburgh’s lone overtime possession, Jeff Reed(notes) blasted a 33-yard field goal through the uprights, and the Steelers walked off with a 13-10 victory over the last team to have defeated them late in the ’08 season.
Much has changed since that December day when the Titans blasted Pittsburgh in Nashville and some of them offended the visitors by stomping on Terrible Towels on the sideline. At that point Roethlisberger was merely a top-notch quarterback with a three-year-old Super Bowl triumph under his belt and a well-deserved reputation for keeping plays alive and keeping cool under pressure.
And now? I don’t know how to put this, but he’s kind of a big deal.
Last February in Tampa, Fla., Roethlisberger engineered one of the most memorable drives in NFL history, hitting Santonio Holmes(notes) on a gorgeous, six-yard touchdown pass to the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds remaining to give Pittsburgh a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
At that point, Roethlisberger became a mega-star with a clear path toward football immortality. At 27, he seems to be getting better, and the Steelers are so obviously his team that even a potentially severe left knee injury to star safety Troy Polamalu (coach Mike Tomlin said after the game he believes Polamalu has a sprained medial collateral ligament and will likely be out three-to-six weeks, which would be a terrific and relieving diagnosis if confirmed) became a secondary story Thursday night.
One other significant event in Roethlisberger’s life occurred since the most recent Super Bowl triumph: In July a Nevada casino worker filed a civil suit alleging that the quarterback sexually assaulted her in the summer of 2008. Roethlisberger, through his own words and those of his attorney, has steadfastly professed his innocence.
If there was a fear that the lawsuit would distract him on the football field, it was extinguished on Thursday. Despite being pummeled with regularity by a defense he called Ravenesque – even without departed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes), Tennessee still ranks with Baltimore and Pittsburgh as the league’s most physical D – Roethlisberger shook off four sacks and a pair of interceptions to complete 33 of 43 passes for 363 yards and a pretty 34-yard touchdown pass to Holmes.
With all of that said, Big Ben was nervous before the game, something he insisted had nothing to do with any off-the-field drama.
“It was my first time being back out there in awhile – that’s all,” he said. “I definitely had the jitters. I told my coach in warm-ups, ‘Man, every one of my balls is high. I can’t throw it where I want to.’ At the start of the game, it showed.”
It was apparent on the game’s third play when, with the Steelers facing third-and-8 at their own 44-yard line, Roethlisberger gave a pump fake and threw deep down the middle to rookie wideout Mike Wallace(notes). “I had him for a touchdown,” Roethlisberger said. “I just missed the throw.” His short pass fell incomplete, and thanks to a pair of atypical missed field goals by Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas(notes) (one off a bad snap, one blocked), the game remained scoreless until shortly before halftime.
Roethlisberger changed that with 1:22 remaining in the second quarter when, on first-and-10 from the Titans’ 34, he dropped back in the shotgun, stared down Hines Ward(notes) and sold a gorgeous pump fake in the veteran wideout’s direction, drawing in former Pittsburgh safety Chris Hope(notes). That left Holmes, whose nine catches for 131 yards would exactly match his Super Bowl MVP stats from February, streaking across the middle of the end zone with plenty of room to catch Roethlisberger’s resplendent spiral.
In the process of absorbing the four sacks and wriggling out of many other potential takedowns, Big Ben hung in and frustrated his increasingly winded opponents.
“That big [expletive] is tough as hell,” Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse(notes), who had one of the sacks, said as he walked off the field following Reed’s game-winner. “He just stays alive. He takes sacks, but he also buys time to find receivers.”
After Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 56 yards on 12 plays to set up Reed’s 32-yard tying field goal with 2:57 remaining, he approached Pittsburgh’s defenders on the sideline and told them, “You get me the ball back, and I’ll win this game.”
David Thornton(notes) (left) and Jovan Haye(notes) get to Roethlisberger for one of the Titans’ four sacks.
He would have delivered, too, had it not been for a stunning occurrence: Ward, one of the league’s most reliable performers, fumbling inside the Tennessee 5 with 51 seconds to go. On first-and-10 from the Titans’ 34, Roethlisberger hit the wideout at the 18 and watched him race through the secondary and bull toward the goal line.
“I thought I was going in,” Ward said. “I figured, ‘The game’s a wrap.’ ”
But at that instant Tennessee safety Michael Griffin(notes) reached across from the side and dislodged the ball, and teammate Stephen Tulloch(notes) recovered at the 4, allowing the Titans to kill the remaining time and set up the fateful coin flip.
“Who would have ever thought Hines Ward would fumble in that situation?” Roethlisberger said. “It’s like Jerome [Bettis] fumbling against Indy.” And we all remember who saved the day with a shoestring tackle of Nick Harper(notes) after The Bus’ goal-line cough-up in that ’05 playoff game, preserving what turned out to be a Super Bowl title run for the black-and-gold.
On Thursday, Big Ben was the savior again, producing his 20th career come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter or overtime (playoffs included) with the poise that few others in his profession can match. The final blow on the OT drive came when Wallace broke free over the deep middle and snagged a 22-yard rope from the quarterback before being tackled at the Tennessee 15.
Reed trotted onto the field, and Roethlisberger took off his helmet and looked for the ballboy, in search of a kinder, gentler form of head ware.
We know now that “Get me my hat” is the equivalent of Red Auerbach’s victory cigar – and that Big Ben is still coming up huge when it counts most.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
In a reversal of last year’s season opener, Jim Zorn’s Washington Redskins will be bold and effective down the stretch in an upset victory over the New York Giants. … The Kansas City Chiefs won’t defeat the Ravens in Baltimore, but they’ll put up a much better fight than anyone expects before succumbing. … Before the end of the NFL season, my colleagues Jason Cole and Charles Robinson will consider making predictions that aren’t completely in line with the opinions of Yahoo! Users.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Arizona, where I can check in on last season’s NFC champions and determine whether the Cardinals’ limp preseason showing has anything to do with anything. As for the 49ers, the team I think has the best chance to unseat the Cards in the NFC West, they nearly won in Arizona last year (in Mike Singletary’s second game as coach), and I think they’ll come with another strong effort.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson sent an email requesting that I rename this section in honor of President Obama. (It went to my Spam folder.)
2. There is nothing that screams relevance! like Hank Williams Jr. returning for a 21st season to open Monday Night Football telecasts.
3. Based on recent predictions, I’m obviously a Chargers hater (even though I picked San Diego to win the Super Bowl before last season).
WORLD’S SIMPLEST POOL
OK, we’re back with the scintillating suicide pool you know and love, same rules as usual: Each week I pick one team to win one game outright, and if I’m correct I live to pick another week. Once a team is picked to win, it’s off limits for the rest of the regular season. Given that caveat, you may think I’m crazy to use my New England Patriots chip in Week 1, but I just can’t help it. They’re playing at home, in Tom Brady’s(notes) return, on Monday Night Football, against an opponent that recently fired its offensive coordinator and waived its presumed starter at left tackle (and whose best offensive player, Marshawn Lynch(notes), is suspended for having violated the league’s personal conduct policy). Could the Buffalo Bills be any more discombobulated heading into their opener? Sorry, I can’t resist picking on them right out of the chute, especially after my miserable, one-and-done performance last season.
MY BUDDIES’ ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE