On a dial-it-up perfect autumn day, Ben Roethlisberger was not.
Three touchdown passes against the Cleveland Browns in a 28-10 victory for the Steelers? Nice, not perfect, and that was good news for one of his favorite targets.
"I didn't really want him to be flawless coming back," said Mike Wallace, who caught Roethlisberger's first touchdown pass of the season and led the Steelers with 90 yards receiving. "Then, we wouldn't really have anything to work on. He had a really good game, but he missed a couple of throws that I'm happy he missed."
Looking at times early in the game as rusty as if he had not played in six weeks, Roethlisberger settled in and wore down the Browns. He put in a typical performance for his 2010 regular-season debut after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL personal conduct policy. He last played Sept. 2 in a preseason game.
Cheered by fans when the Steelers' offense was introduced, Roethlisberger threw an interception that led to Cleveland's first
score, but followed with touchdown passes to Wallace, Hines Ward and Heath Miller.
Roethlisberger completed 16 of 27 passes for 257 yards and a 112.7 passer rating. He also was not sacked, something rare for a quarterback who was sacked 50 times last season.
"He hadn't played in a month!" noted coach Mike Tomlin, whose team won three games behind Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch in Roethlisberger's absence. "You can characterize it the way you want to characterize it. He missed a few throws. He's not perfect, none of us are. He played a good football game."
Rashard Mendenhall, who ran 27 times for 84 yards, added a fourth Steelers score with a 2-yard run that broke open a closer-than-expected game that favored the home club by 14 points. The Steelers led by just 7-3 until Ward's 8-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter.
"We missed a couple of plays," Ward said of the sluggish early-going.
The Browns scored on Phil Dawson's 39-yard first-quarter field goal but were silent until a 12-yard touchdown pass by rookie quarterback Colt McCoy to tight end Ben Watson with 4:09 left.
The Steelers raised their record to 4-1 and are back in first place by themselves in the AFC North Division after Baltimore's overtime loss in New England. The Browns are 1-5 after losing for the 13th time in the past 14 games against the Steelers.
"It was going to happen, guys," Tomlin said of Roethlisberger's first game back and all the attention it drew for the past two weeks. "At some point, the guy was going to come back. It was going to be a story in some form or fashion. It's not our story. Our story is the story of the 2010 Steelers and our quest to win football games."
They are known for winning games early under Tomlin -- a 6-2 start last season, 5-1 in 2008 and 4-1 in 2007. Never before, however, has any team had to open its season under such circumstances, with its two-time Super Bowl quarterback suspended for alleged sexual shenanigans in a tiny Georgia town where he was never charged with a crime.
After months of debate over how the fans might greet him, Roethlisberger heard the cheers during introductions and again when he took the field for the first time after Ryan Clark's interception snuffed out the Browns' first series after it reached the Steelers' 36.
Roethlisberger led his first offensive series to Cleveland's 14 but, on third down, he threw high to Mewelde Moore. Rookie cornerback Joe Haden intercepted the pass and weaved in and out of traffic to return it 62 yards to the Steelers' 35.
"I just got a little antsy," Roethlisberger explained. "Mewelde Moore was open. I wanted to get him the ball right away when I needed to just settle down and get it to him."
Dawson converted the Steelers' only turnover into a 3-0 Cleveland lead by kicking a 39-yard field goal.
The Steelers responded on the next series with a touchdown to take a 7-3 lead. Roethlisberger, as he was hit by linebacker Matt Roth, threw a 29-yard scoring pass to Wallace, who caught it behind cornerback Eric Wright in the end zone.
Getting hit as he completed big passes became a theme for Roethlisberger Sunday; the Browns blitzed him, but got to him a tad late.
"He got hit a couple times," Ward said. "That's what I was more worried about. He hadn't been hit like that in over a month. But he held his own, came out and kept fighting."
Roethlisberger tossed his second scoring pass in the third quarter, 8 yards to Ward, who caught it at the four and broke two tackles to fight into the end zone for a 14-3 lead.
It ended a four-play, 96-yard drive. Roethlisberger began the drive by hitting Wallace deep down the right side for a 50-yard reception just as the quarterback was getting hit up the middle by linebacker Scott Fujita. On the next play, he connected with Miller for a 36-yard pass and, again, Roethlisberger was knocked to the ground on the play, this time by Shaun Rogers.
The Steelers' third touchdown followed a fumble by Cleveland's Chansi Stuckey on a punt in the fourth quarter. Keyaron Fox recovered at the Browns' 13, and Mendenhall scored on a 2-yard run to give him six consecutive home game with a touchdown run.
McCoy, looking poised in his first NFL start, threw his first NFL touchdown pass to tight end Benjamin Watson that culminated a lightning drive that covered 70 yards in six plays for the Browns. McCoy completed passes of 23 and 28 yards on that drive, and Watson was wide open in the right side of the end zone for the touchdown.
"He shows composure," Tomlin said of the Browns' rookie.
Lawrence Timmons, who also had two sacks, intercepted a tipped pass at Cleveland's 18 with 1:42 to go. Roethlisberger then threw to Miller on third down for the final touchdown from 14 yards.
The Steelers and their quarterback passed the final hurdle -- they hope -- in Roethlisberger's long ordeal that began March 5.
"It's football for me," Roethlisberger said. "I'm just happy to be out there, to be with those guys and win a football game."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published October 18, 2010 4:00 AM