Cook: Starting Roethlisberger was right call

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Don't even think it.

The Steelers weren't wrong to start and stick with Ben Roethlisberger against the Jacksonville Jaguars last night.

No, no, no, no.

It was the right call.

It just had the wrong ending.

Jaguars 9, Steelers 0.

The second-guessers aren't going to want to hear that, of course. They'll tell you it was too soon to play Big Ben, that there was no way that his game couldn't be off. He had to line up against an ornery Jaguars defense just 15 days after his appendectomy and still only three months-and-change after his horrific motorcycle accident. On top of that, he woke up in Pittsburgh Sunday morning, feeling rotten with a high fever, which, he said, wryly, "is to be expected with the black cloud I have over me these days."

That's a lot of trauma for one body.

But that's not what beat the Steelers last night. Sorry.

Who knew Big Ben's receivers were going to call in sick? His offensive linemen? His running backs?

They, as much as the Jaguars, ruined what could have been another magical chapter in the Roethlisberger story.

"We didn't help him out, that's for sure," tackle Max Starks said.

It's true, Big Ben had a lousy night, too, and his offense was shut out for the first time in his 32 career starts, 27 of which ended in wins. His numbers reflected it: 17 of 32 for 141 yards, two fourth-quarter interceptions and two sacks. His first interception, on a play in which wide receiver Santonio Holmes didn't appear to look for the ball, was a killer, setting up the Jaguars' clinching field goal.

"When you play as bad as I did, you get shut out," Roethlisberger said, predictably taking all blame, which is what every smart quarterback does.

"I just didn't make the plays I have to make. That's why I have to apologize not just to our offense, but to our defense. I couldn't make any plays on third down. I couldn't keep our defense off the field."

All of it is true.

But Roethlisberger had very little help.

His receivers didn't catch the ball, his linemen didn't handle that Jacksonville defense and his backs had nowhere to run.

The only good news on this lost night was that Roethlisberger was back. He came through the game OK physically and should be much better Sunday when the Steelers play host to the Cincinnati Bengals in this week's Game of the Year in the AFC North Division.

"Hopefully, I'll be a lot more comfortable," he said. "This was my first full game since the Super Bowl so it's been awhile."

It's nice to think Roethlisberger's supporting cast also will be better. It hardly can be worse.

In the scoreless first half, Cedrick Wilson, Hines Ward and Verron Haynes dropped passes. All should have resulted in drive-sustaining first downs.

"If we catch those, maybe we get into some kind of rhythm on offense," coach Bill Cowher said.

The Steelers never did run the ball with any effectiveness. Willie Parker's totals -- 11 carries for 20 yards -- were abysmal.

That's why it's hard to say the Steelers made a bad decision to start Roethlisberger.

There was never much doubt about it, at least not after Roethlisberger was cleared by the doctors and practiced all week, although that fever made everyone pause. Asked how he felt during the game, he said, "Not too bad ... No excuses."

Sure, because of the appendectomy, there was the tiny, tiny risk of a hernia. That's always an increased possibility when there's a weakness in the abdominal wall.

But Roethlisberger was willing to take his chances. It's not exactly a breaking story to say he's a tough kid and a fast healer. This is a guy who refused to miss a play at training camp after his face was surgically rebuilt six weeks earlier.

The Steelers also were willing to roll the dice. They love having Charlie Batch as a quality backup and he played very well in the opening game win against the Miami Dolphins. But there never was any thought of switching to him even in the second half last night. It's Big Ben's team. Cowher wanted to get him back onto the field as soon as possible so he could get used to the speed of the NFL game again. Roethlisberger played in three of the exhibition games, but that's not the same. If nothing else, the experience against the Jaguars should help him in the big game against the Bengals and for the rest of the season.

"I told coach, 'I'll be OK. Don't worry about me,' " Roethlisberger said. "I'm going to play better."

Roethlisberger has to play much better for the Steelers to beat the Bengals.

So do his teammates.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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