Gene Collier: Steelers mop up with a clean Big Ben

CLEVELAND -- Long before the Steelers made it to the frozen, wind-battered lakefront address of their nearest rival, in the 12th week of this long and angry NFL season, an unmistakable momentum had been long since established.

That it had nothing at all to do with the Steelers hardly made it irrelevant.

The Browns, God bless 'em they're terrible, had dropped four of their past five games by an average of 15 points, so at least in that respect, coach Mike Tomlin's team did nothing so much as get out of the way Sunday while the Browns maintained free fall, this time by 16, just a tick past standard futility.

No one has to be reminded that Cleveland's quarterback situation is a little unstable (since like the previous century), but it's pretty twisted when the backup (often a de facto folk hero in most markets) jogs on stage and gets booed before he even takes a snap.

Yeah that's a shame.

But something tangible and perhaps even prophetic leaped into clarity from the Steelers' third consecutive victory, namely an amazingly efficient reaffirmation of that part of the Steelers gospel I'll let Ramon Foster read for you right now:

"Ben is a good quarterback," quoth the massive left guard, "when he's standing."


What had just caused everyone to flip to this chapter of the Old Testament was the fact that the Steelers offensive line, the most-indicted co-conspirator in the meltdown of an 0-4 start, had just finished nearly 34 minutes of ball control without allowing Roethlisberger to be sacked once -- the first time this year he had been totally clean for an entire game.

What's more, Ben was sacked only one time last week against Detroit, so put another way, an offensive line that allowed a staggering 36 assaults on Fort 7 in the first nine games has now kept 7 upright for most of the past eight quarters.

"We gotta do better," was about as far as right guard David DeCastro would go. "I gave up a hit when [Cleveland defensive end Ahtyba] Rubin got to Ben on a play-action."

This is what seemed more promising than the zero-sack game, the appearance that no one who was responsible for it Sunday seemed terribly impressed with themselves.

"We did our job for the most part," Foster said. "We didn't give up any sacks but we gave up some hits, and you know Baltimore is going to be on that. We gotta make sure we clean up some stuff now that we're on the road. We gotta be a lot better."

How much better the protection unit can get by the time they square off against a murder of crows in Maryland on Thanksgiving night can't really be known, but the evident improvement is keeping things interesting in a seriously crazed AFC wild-card chase.

Roethlisberger has thrown six touchdown passes and no interceptions in the past two games, both against ferocious pass rushes -- yes, even Cleveland's. The Browns came into the hostilities Sunday with 31 sacks, 13 more than the Steelers, yet somehow never got terribly close to mauling Big Ben other than when rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo broke through near the end of the third quarter. Ben took a standing thump from Mingo just after releasing one of only 12 incompletions among 34 throws.

"We still have a little ways to go," center Fernando Velasco said. "We gave up a couple hits, and a lot of times for a quarterback, those hits, and pressures, and people in his face are worse than sacks. We've been kept on our toes these last two weeks, playing against stunting teams, but we've still got to eliminate some mistakes.

"We do that, we'll be on our way."

This wasn't just the O-line making with its typical aw-shucks policy on anything approaching positive notice, by the way. The head coach wasn't exactly knocked flat by the perfect game pitched by Ben's entourage.

"I think some of it can be overblown just in terms of the nature in which the games are unfolding," said Tomlin after coaching the first win by any AFC North Division team on the road this season. "When you're not behind, you can run the ball, you can play-[action] pass, and so forth. It aids in that effort. Some of it is game circumstance and not necessarily what we're doing.

"Although I appreciate it."

Very likely Roethlisberger did as well, especially when he had enough time to launch a 41-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown on a go route down the left sideline behind splendid Cleveland corner Joe Haden in the second quarter, the one that gave the Steelers a 10-3 lead they would eventually inflate to 27-3.

By the time the Browns got around to scoring a touchdown Sunday, roughly 71,000 of the 71,513 on hand had escaped into the debilitating cold of the approaching twilight.

Only darkness lay ahead for the home team, but the Steelers may finally see some light.

Gene Collier:

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