Ben Roethlisberger was good, but not great, in his return from a knee injury, and the Cincinnati Bengals took full advantage, escaping with a 16–10 victory.
Ben Roethlisberger admitted that he was nervous this week. And maybe the nerves, or at least a little rust, got the best of him in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 16–10 loss to Cincinnati. It can happen, even to great quarterbacks with 12 years of NFL experience.
“I’m excited, but really I am a little nervous, a little anxious just because so many expectations, the guys and fans and media,” Roethlisberger said Friday, via Steelers.com. “To me it’s more about the locker room, the guys. ... I know there’s a lot of expectation from them. I want to be great for them.”
The odd thing is, the Steelers didn't really need him to be great Sunday. Even after Le'Veon Bell was carted off with what looked like a gruesome, serious knee injury—just as he was in Week 17 vs. Cincinnati last year—the Steelers managed to maintain control of the scoreboard.
Aside from Roethlisberger's early touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, it mostly was the surprising Pittsburgh defense that set the tone. That is, until Roethlisberger tried to force a throw along the sideline with 5:34 left. His intended target, fullback Will Johnson, stopped moving back to the football, allowing Cincinnati's Shawn Williams to make a diving interception. Prior to that instant, the play had been classic Big Ben—he escaped a sack attempt, rolled left, dodged another defender and fired.
How often has that type of effort resulted in a big play for Pittsburgh? But this time, though, Roethlisberger with just a touch tardy with the throw. Maybe in another week or two, when he's further removed from a four-week absence caused by a knee injury, those passes will click. Sunday, it flipped the game in Cincinnati's favor.
Making matters worse, Roethlisberger came back on his very next pass and threw another interception, which came on a deep ball to Brown, with safety Reggie Nelson drifting over for the pick. The Bengals scored off both of Roethlisberger's fourth-quarter mistakes: an Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green touchdown for the lead, then a field goal to build a little cushion. The extra three points proved critical, as Roethlisberger did lead a late drive deep into Cincinnati territory, only to loft a pass at the buzzer out of the end zone.
For all intents and purposes, the AFC North race is over. Cincinnati is now 7–0, with a 3.5-game lead over Pittsburgh. It would take a collapse like the NFL has rarely seen for the Bengals to cough this lead away, especially with Bell sidelined.
Give credit to the Bengals, too, for stealing this one. The versatile offense they had used to win their first six games was nonexistent during the opening three-plus quarters—Andy Dalton reverted to locking onto A.J. Green, while Gio Bernard couldn't even get on the field. Dalton also threw two fourth-quarter interceptions himself, with Antwon Blake swiping one in the end zone and Mike Mitchell hauling in a bobbled bomb.
But given a reprieve by Roethliseberger's miscues, the Bengals—and Dalton—answered. Dalton converted a huge third-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 40 with four minutes left, setting up what would be a game-winning touchdown to Green.
Their elation was the Steelers' misery. Already, this has been about as scattered a season for Pittsburgh as is possible. Bell missed the first two games due to suspension, while Martavis Bryant sat for four. Then Roethlisberger dropped with his injury, right before Bryant returned.
Sunday, for the first time all season, the Steelers had their full complement of skill-position players available. It lasted 22 minutes before Bell's leg bent backwards.
What happens next for the now 4–4 Steelers depends on myriad factors, but the biggest of all are Bell's health and Roethlisberger's play. The latter should come around eventually, perhaps even as early as next week when Oakland visits Heinz Field. The former could be catastrophic to Pittsburgh's playoff chances. DeAngelo Williams has filled in well for Bell, but he is not as dominant an option (and there is little depth behind him).
The Steelers can take some solace in their defense's continued improvement. The Bengals' late touchdown drive takes a little shine off that apple, but before that Pittsburgh made Dalton's life miserable. The linebacking corps, in particular, provided frequent pressure via blitzes and helped keep TE Tyler Eifert in check.
Should the defense hold up for the next eight games, the Steelers will remain a wild-card contender. To reach the postseason now, however, will require the absolute best Roethlisberger can offer.
He didn't have it Sunday, no matter how badly he wanted to help.