You watched the players emerge from the tunnel and the warmth of the Steelers locker room. One by one, they returned to the Heinz Field lawn. It was almost time for the second half against the Cleveland Browns Thursday night. You looked up and down the sideline, thinking you might have missed him. But, no, he wasn't there. You saw Charlie Batch warming up, apparently ready to take control of the team again in the second half. But you didn't see Ben Roethlisberger.
Then, suddenly, he was there.
Of course, he was there.
Slowly, limping badly on his left ankle, Roethlisberger walked to where Batch was throwing and took the ball off him. He took a few practice snaps from Doug Legursky -- who would play the second half for injured Maurkice Pouncey -- and gingerly took a few steps back each time. That was enough for coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
Roethlisberger would play the second half.
It was the very best part of a surprisingly difficult 14-3 victory.
It's not so much that Roethlisberger played brilliantly in the final two quarters, although he did clinch the win with a 79-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown with 2:52 left. That was all Brown, who caught a short sideline pass and turned it into a touchdown with a couple of great moves and his incredible speed.
To that point in the second half, the Steelers offense had been stymied, although it wasn't all Roethlisberger's fault. One drive was stopped by an illegal hands to the face penalty on guard Chris Kemoeatu. Another produced no points when running back Rashard Mendenhall couldn't get in the end zone despite four carries inside the Cleveland 2. A third drive ended with a Roethlisberger interception.
None of that seemed to matter, though.
All that really counted was that Roethlisberger was able to play.
Was it just me or did it feel like the season was saved?
"He knows the whole team is on his shoulders," injured tackle Willie Colon said of Roethlisberger earlier in the season. "It's going to take a lot to sit him down."
This looked like it might be the injury.
Roethlisberger was hurt midway through the second quarter when he was sacked by Browns defensive tackle Scott Paxson. It was typical of so many of the previous 308 times he had been sacked in his career. He looked downfield. He saw no one open. He stepped up in the pocket. He saw no one open. He moved to his right. Still, he saw no one open. Finally, Paxson closed in, wrapped him around the legs and took him down.
Roethlisberger didn't get up.
His left ankle rolled under him.
Heinz Field grew quiet.
Roethlisberger, who had completed 8 of 9 passes for 102 yards, including one for 11 yards and a touchdown to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery in the first quarter, was helped off the field and taken by cart to the locker room. Batch finished the half, failing to complete either of his two passes.
For many Steelers fans, what followed was the longest halftime of the season. They didn't relax until they saw Roethlisberger limp out of that tunnel. Not that they haven't come to expect it. The guy has played with a broken thumb this season. He played with a broken nose and a broken foot last season.
"I don't want to let my guys down," Roethlisberger has said often. "I can deal with the pain. I'll be out there until they take me off in a cart."
So Roethlisberger finished the game and finished off the Browns. He had trouble reaching his running backs to hand off on that bad ankle but didn't have any fumbles. He completed 9 of 13 passes for 172 yards in the second half, including that beautiful catch-and-run by Brown.
It was Colon who described Roethlisberger best.
"He's just so tough."
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published December 9, 2011 5:00 AM