Ron Cook: Roethlisberger's final act Saturday night among his greatest
January 11, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger cheers from behind as receiver Martavis Bryant tries to pick up a first down Saturday night in Cincinnati.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post Gazette
It didn’t top the final drive in Super Bowl XLIII.
For Ben Roethlisberger, nothing probably will surpass the eight-play, 78-yard drive and his 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes to beat the Arizona Cardinals in the final minute. But what Roethlisberger did Saturday night in Cincinnati might be the most remarkable achievement in a career that has him bound for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In an act of desperation, Mike Tomlin put Roethlisberger back in an AFC wild-card game against the Bengals in the final two minutes with the Steelers trailing, 16-15. Tomlin believed Roethlisberger, playing with one arm because of a right shoulder injury from a sack on the final play of the third quarter, was a better option than ineffective backup Landry Jones. Roethlisberger justified that faith by leading the Steelers to an 18-16 win with a nine-play, 74-yard drive for the deciding field goal.
“He’s our guy. I wouldn’t trade him for anyone else,” Tomlin said.
Roethlisberger described his pain as intense and said he couldn’t throw the ball more than 5 or 10 yards, yet he somehow managed to complete 5 of 7 passes for 40 yards. He converted a third-and-2 with a 7-yard pass to Fitzgerald Toussaint and a fourth-and-3 with a 12-yard pass to Antonio Brown.
“When he makes miracles happen, I’m not surprised,” teammate Ryan Shazier said.
“Ben is an amazing quarterback. He’s an amazing leader. We just have to do what we can to follow him.”
Roethlisberger’s role in the final drive will be remembered for years, especially if the Steelers go deeper in the playoffs, starting with an AFC divisional-round game Sunday at Denver against the Broncos. But it hardly was his only contribution to the Steelers’ first postseason win in five years. He might have done his best work before the game when he challenged Martavis Bryant on his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan to “toughen up” and start making tough catches. Bryant responded by making the two biggest plays by the Steelers offense, a 44-yard run to set up a field goal and a 10-yard touchdown catch that will go down as one of the most memorable in franchise history.
“That’s what you expect from him,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s why I did it. That was a challenge, not a call-out. He recognized the challenge and stepped up and did awesome.”
Roethlisberger has a unique relationship with Bryant and talks of him being his little brother. Roethlisberger reached out to Bryant every morning when Bryant was at a Houston rehabilitation facility on his four-game suspension for marijuana at the start of the season.
“It meant a lot to me,” Bryant said. “It was positive stuff to keep me going, but, at the same time, he was letting me know that I was down there for a reason. I had to go down and make sure I took care of myself and got myself back together as a man. I started crying and everything because it meant a lot for him to show that he cared.”
That’s why Bryant reacted well to the tough love last week from Roethlisberger. He knew he hadn’t been playing well. He had just one catch for no yards in the final regular-season game against Cleveland and ran the wrong route on a Roethlisberger interception. A week earlier, in a crushing loss at Baltimore, he dropped a long pass that should have set up a tying field goal late in the game. Roethlisberger challenged him to do better after that game, as well.
“I wasn’t down about him or what he said,” Bryant said. “A challenge is a challenge. You want to answer a challenge and go out and be great. That’s how I looked at it when he did it. He helped me out throughout the week, getting on the same page. We went out and played hard and executed our game plan.”
Bryant’s run on an end-around play set up a field goal that gave the Steelers a 9-0 lead. His touchdown catch stretched the lead to 15-0 and was the Steelers’ play of the season.
“Spectacular,” Roethlisberger said, grinning.
The catch has been replayed dozens of times on all of the national sports shows. It will be replayed for years the way Lynn Swann’s acrobatic catches in Super Bowl X are.
Bryant spun to his outside in the corner of the end zone to catch Roethlisberger’s perfectly thrown pass. He maintained possession as cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick swiped at the ball, palming it in his right hand and pinning it against his legs as he got both feet down before doing a flip out of the end zone.
“I was just playing ball and reacting quick,” Bryant said. “Quick reactions and hand strength.”
Roethlisberger wasn’t the only teammate who wasn’t surprised by Bryant’s astonishing play.
“He was fired up all week,” Ramon Foster said. “I’m super happy for the kid. What we have to realize is he’s a young guy. He’s going to continue to grow.”
It’s safe to say Roethlisberger won’t be calling out — OK, challenging — Bryant this week. Bryant said it’s unnecessary. He said he will be ready to go against the Broncos. He’s just hoping Roethlisberger will be healthy enough to start.
“He needs me in this game to step up and make plays,” Bryant said. “Go out and have fun. Have his back.”
Is Bryant getting that follow-the-leader thing down or what?
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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