EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – For two franchises as historic and steeped in stability as the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers, reinvention is supposed to come along rarely. Why change what works over generations?
The Giants are in the throes of a makeover this season, starting over with rookie head coach Joe Judge after failed seasons with Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur. The Giants resist calling it a rebuilding, but this is a particularly difficult season to try something new and on Monday night they needed only to look across the line of scrimmage to be reminded of what they had in their most recent championship seasons and to gauge what they are missing right now: a cohesive offensive line, a fearsome defensive front, and a seasoned quarterback who can still put a pinpoint pass into the hands of a receiver like JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have all of those, but Monday was all about the seasoned quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who returned from elbow surgery that wrecked his 2019 season to throw three touchdown passes in a 26-16 victory over the Giants. Roethlisberger appeared shaky, probably because of his own nerves, early in the game, throwing passes high and off his receivers' fingertips. But once he settled down, he brought the derring-do back to the Steelers, lofting a touchdown pass off his back foot to Smith-Schuster, taking off on a wild scramble down the seam, engineering a two-minute-drill touchdown drive to end the first half and reestablishing the Steelers as one of the league's most balanced teams, and one capable of competing for a playoff spot again.
"That two-minute drive that he was able to navigate before the half was significant," coach Mike Tomlin said of when he knew Roethlisberger's jitters were gone.
Roethlisberger's return at age 38 to a team with the pieces to win a championship now is one of the NFL's most intriguing storylines. He imbues the Steelers with confidence and swagger. The Steelers got a peek at life without Big Ben last year and the 8-8 record, with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback, underscored how very necessary Roethlisberger is. The Steelers were good enough everywhere else last year that they nearly overcame the loss of a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
"I told the guys before the game, it's not about me individually," Roethlisberger said. "The reason I came back was for these guys, for this team. It's a special group of football players and men and I'm just thankful to be a part of it."
The Steelers were 8-6 with two games to go last season, until a mind-numbing loss to the Jets essentially ended any long shot hopes. The Giants saw up close why Roethlisberger is the missing piece the Steelers needed. He played well, but even more important, he didn't do anything bad enough to negate the fact that the Steelers defense made Saquon Barkley struggle for each positive rushing yard -- and there were only six of those on 15 rushes, many against stacked boxes that the Steelers used in their commitment to stop the player they view as the Giants' catalyst. More to the point, Roethlisberger didn't make the kind of mistakes Daniel Jones did when, after leading an impressive third-quarter drive that put the Giants on the lip of taking the lead, he threw a wild pass under duress that was picked off at the goal line by Cameron Heyward. It was the kind of gut punch mistake young quarterbacks make and which Jones spent much of the offseason working to remove from his game. He finished 26 of 41 for 279 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
"They're unbelievable," Roethlisberger said of the defense. "Unfortunately, I have to face them every day in practice. They are one of the best defenses I've played with. What they do is they allow you to play more free because if you do make a mistake, you can count on them to bail you out of it."
The Giants did show flashes of what they hope to become under Judge. There was a coverage sack of Roethlisberger by Leonard Williams -- for a defense notably thin in the secondary -- that stalled the Steelers drive following that turnover. Barkley had room to sprint and hurdle when the Giants got him out on the edges with a series of passes, which he took for 60 yards. And they stayed competitive in a game that, on a few occasions, was at risk of becoming a blowout early.
Judge has sought to bring an old-school toughness back to the Giants and there was plenty the Giants could have learned if they had a chance to watch the Steelers operate, particularly as the offensive line opened holes for Benny Snell, who had 113 yards on 19 carries. The Giants never got those for Barkley, and while Roetlisberger's return is the headline news, it is the Steelers' balanced offensive attack – on display in a fourth quarter drive that was largely populated by Snell runs mixed with short passes until Roethlisberger hit Smith-Schuster with an eight-yard touchdown pass -- that will be so important to their efforts to slow the Baltimore Ravens, their division rival.
Tomlin and Roethlisberger had both talked last week about the nervousness they expected for this game, and Tomlin said his did not disappear until the game was over, because the opportunity is so rare, the games so few. The expectations for teams like the Steelers – and the Giants in many years – are extraordinarily high, which places an even greater spotlight on what is surely one of the final chances with Roethlisberger before the Steelers will have to dwell in the quarterback search that consumes less fortunate teams. The Steelers have not failed to be in the playoffs in three straight seasons since the year 2000 – 20 years ago. They have won two Super Bowls, and appeared in a third, since. And the Steelers were able to avoid the quarterback shuffling that afflicted so many other teams this season because Roethlisberger has been the stalwart, a quarterback his detractors claim over-dramatizes his injuries, who nevertheless has toughened out injuries, smoothed over most of his own bouts with lack of discipline and outlasted most of his contemporaries to still play at a high level.
Roethlisberger is at an age now where a touch of his knee elicits concern. Roethlisberger said he expects to be sore, but he felt like the ball was coming out of his hands fast.
On a weekend when his draft classmate Philip Rivers suffered a meltdown with his new team, the Indianapolis Colts, in a stunning loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and his other draft classmate, Eli Manning, watched from his retirement, Roethlisberger was the last one left standing and slinging. As he walked off the field Monday night holding the game ball, his elbow and confidence intact, Roethlisberger was again the reason why the Steelers could be among the last ones standing this season.
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