Veterans step up, secure win over Chargers
SAN DIEGO -- Even though he's only in his second season, Ben Roethlisberger looks amazingly cool in the pocket in pressure situations. When he went down with a knee injury with 1:05 remaining in Monday night's frantic 24-22 victory over the Chargers, his veteran teammates had to assume command.
Charlie Batch, who hasn't played since November of 2003, had to run onto the field and try to navigate the final three plays to set up Jeff Reed's game-winning 40-yard field goal. Backup Tommy Maddox went down in Friday's practice with a calf injury and might miss up to three games, leaving Batch the Steelers backup.
Halfback Jerome Bettis offered his help, knowing he was going to be the one called upon to bring the victory home.
"The first thing I did is that I went over to Charlie and said, 'Listen, when you give it to me, look it all the way in, and I'll do the rest,' " Bettis said. "I walked all the way over where he was taking snaps and said, 'Hey, look it in, follow me as I go through and I'll do the rest.' "
Bettis did the rest as did Batch and the blockers. Roethlisberger left the game after completing a 9-yard pass to Antwaan Randle-El, setting up a second down and 1 at the Chargers 29. They trailed, 22-21, and the situation could have unsettled less experienced teams. Batch wasn't rattled. He started plenty of games with the Detroit Lions, once taking them to the playoffs.
He calmly handled the huddle and let Bettis do the rest. Bettis powered his 250-pound plus body into the overstacked Chargers run defense, gaining 7 yards on three carries, eating up valuable clock time and moving the ball closer for Reed to get an easy spot on the left hash mark for the field goal.
After winning 15 games a year ago and advancing to the AFC title game, the Steelers had the championship swagger about them. They also had the support of more than 10,000 Steelers fans waving Terrible Towels in the sellout crowd at Qualcomm Stadium.
"Jerome had some runs, and Jeff [Reed], he's pretty clutch now," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "I'm telling you I think sometimes it's harder with some of the things we do in practice than it is here. I knew when they iced him [with a time out with 10 seconds left], we were fine. He wanted it on the left hash and that's why we kept running it to the left."
Still, the Steelers' season went into temporary shock when Roethlisberger went down. The hit was a clean one by Castillo but it was scary. Replays immediately showed the hyperextension. Roethlisberger -- and maybe the Steelers season -- could have gone down with that hit because, despite his youth, Roethlisberger is the leader who made the Steelers offense special for his past 19 regular-season starts.
"He doesn't seem to get rattled," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He's starting to grow more and more. He is on the sidelines talking to the guys. He is asking more questions. On the drive we scored in three plays [early in the fourth quarter], he was asking me on the sideline before, 'Are you going to do this?' It is a matter of everybody communicating and being on the same page. That is a sign of a great quarterback. You don't get rattled in situations like that. He stayed poised and executed the game plan."
This was classic Monday Night Football with that playoff feel to it. Roethlisberger calmly drove the Steelers on two second quarter touchdown drives to open a 14-0 lead. At 6-5, 241, Roethlisberger has perhaps one of the best looking pocket presences in football. He doesn't rattle and if defenses bring enough bodies into his backfield, he is strong enough to run for yards or throw on the run. His first score was a 7-yard touchdown run against a cornerback blitz. Roethlisberger spotted Chargers corner Drayton Florence, saw an opening and followed through with a thunderous spike in the endzone after the touchdown.
"Ben is very much in control when he is on the field," Cowher said. "He understands situations. He understands the game. He played a very solid football game."
Drew Brees is also cool. He brought the Chargers from a 14-0 deficit by fighting off blitzes with getting a few key passes to either tight end Antonio Gates or halfback LaDainain Tomlinson. The climb was tough because Bill Cowher's Steelers teams rarely blow double-digit leads. Brees kept chipping away and engineered three second-half field goal drives to take a 16-14 lead.
"All I can say is that was a classic football game," Cowher said. "I think it was one of those where in the fourth quarter, you can sense whoever has the ball last is going to get it done. Those are two good football teams that played out there tonight. I think we were fortunate enough that we had the ball last to be honest with you."
After the Chargers took the lead, 16-14, with 11:41 left in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger went to work. He completed passes of 33 and 13 to Hines Ward and then hit tight end Heath Miller with a 16-yard touchdown pass to give the Steelers a 21-16 lead. The drive took only 71 seconds.
"It's frustrating to look at all the opportunities we had but we knew it was going to be a game like that," Tomlinson said. "They had the ball last. They were able to kick a field goal and win it in the end. You kind of got the sense in the second half the way the game was going that the team that had the ball last was going to pull it out. They just happened to get the ball last."
Brees worked his own magic but he almost had too much time. He drove the Chargers 62 yards and 11 plays. Tomlinson scored a 1-yard touchdown but was stopped on the two point conversion. The Chargers led, 22-21, but the Steelers had 4:42 to get their game-winning field goal drive.
That's where the Steelers have advanced from a year ago. Remember in the AFC title game, the Patriots dropped back and wait for Roethlisberger to make mistakes. The Patriots got the interceptions and the lead and won easily. Two weeks ago, Roethlisberger warded off a shoulder injury against the Patriots and led the Steelers to a game-tying touchdown drive. Unfortunately for them, Tom Brady had 1:21 left to get the game-winning Adam Vinatieri field goal.
Cedric Wilson got the drive started by returning the kickoff 29 yards to the Steelers 38. Back in the lineup was Bettis, a top five NFL rusher who still has game. Bettis powered forward for the tough yards. Roethlisberger made the clutch throws to get the first downs.
"It was fun to be back out there," Bettis said. "That's what I'm here for. That's what I do and that's what I do best. It was fun to get back in the groove and be there when the team needs me."
Bettis has been out the first three games because of calf injury. For him, the idle time was tough because he was hearing too much criticism from Steelers fans wondering if he was done as a player. To him, that was an insult.
"The toughest part for me was the last five weeks listening to everybody in the media and the fan talking about if I'm going to play and should I play," Bettis said. "I think I deserve the respect of being the fourth all-time leading rusher. That's what I'm not getting. I'm frustrated during the five weeks I was out. I think I deserve better than that."
Bettis finished with 54 tough yards on 17 carries and a touchdown. He's content that Willie Parker is the starter. Duce Staley is healthy but inactive. But the Steelers needed him Monday night and he came through, particularly rushing seven times in the game finishing drive.
Batch anticipates he will be the starter against Jacksonville, and with good reason. Though Roethlisberger may have suffered only a minor injury, it's going to be tough to bounce back with only five days of rest.
"It looked back from what I saw on the screen," Cowher said. "But I don't have a report right now."
Roethlisberger wasn't talking after the game, It took him time to get dressed and took him more time to get settled on his crutches.
"Right now all preliminary indications are that way," Batch said of his chances to start. "On a short week, you just don't know. This week has been crazy. On Friday, we lose Tommy. Now Ben goes down. It's been a while but for me I'm excited about the opportunity."
The Steelers celebrated their victory and will await the results of Roethlisberger's test. They are 3-1 and pulled off a big win on the road. They watched their second-year quarterback grow. Now, they wait to see when they can get him back.
John Clayton is senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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