It wasn’t vintage Ben Roethlisberger by any measure. But there were enough flashes in Pittsburgh’s 28-10 victory over the visiting Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon to auger better things to come for the Steelers and their quarterback, who made a mixed but victorious return from a four-game suspension.
Primary among the several hints that Roethlisberger didn’t forfeit all of his timing or instinct during his long layoff: on a third-quarter touchdown pass to Hines Ward, the Steelers’ wide receiver actually turned the wrong way on an option route, as he moved inside a linebacker instead of cutting to the outside, and Roethlisberger did not hesitate in delivering the ball for an eight-yard score.
"We’ve played together enough to know," said Roethlisberger of the play, on which Ward fought into the end zone from about the 3-yard line. "We were definitely on the same page there."
At times on a day when he received a warm welcome back from Pittsburgh fans – the Steelers, who often introduce their defensive unit in pregame, trotted out the offense so that Roethlisberger could receive an ovation – the quarterback and his receivers didn’t appear to even be reading from the same book. But Roethlisberger was still 16-for-27 for 257 yards, with three touchdown passes, an interception and a quarterback rating of 112.7.
Conceded Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who assessed that Roethlisberger played a good game, when asked about some of the quarterback’s inaccuracy at times: "He hasn’t played football in a month. He missed some throws. … But he played well."
Notable was that Roethlisberger, whose 189 sacks over the past four seasons are the most in the NFL during that stretch, and who has taken three or more sacks in 30 games the past three campaigns, was not sacked at all by the Cleveland defense. Much of the discussion preceding the game centered around how the revamped Steelers offensive line would adjust to having Roethlisberger, who loves to extend plays outside the pocket, back in the lineup.
The last time the teams met, a 13-6 Cleveland upset last Dec. 10, the Browns sacked Roethlisberger eight times. In the last four contests of 2009, Roethlisberger was sacked a total of 20 times.
"But I think he felt at home, and we felt at home having him back there," said left tackle Max Starks.
Unlike his usual helter-skelter style, when he buys time by moving out of the tackle box and is effective throwing on the run, Roethlisberger played most of this game in the pocket. Of his 27 pass attempts, the most by Pittsburgh in its five games this season, 18 unofficially came with Roethlisberger in the pocket. He completed 12 of those 18 throws for 190 yards, all three of his touchdowns, one interception and a 118.06 passer rating.
His rating outside the pocket was a modest 70.14, as Roethlisberger completed only four of nine for 67 yards.
Roethlisberger’s best throw outside the pocket came early in the second quarter when he rolled to his right, signaled wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a void in the Cleveland secondary on the right hash and then drilled a 22-yard completion to the rookie for a first down.
His best throws, by far, though, came from the pocket. And Roethlisberger’s finest sequence came on a 96-yard drive in the third quarter that culminated with the touchdown pass to Ward that lifted the Steelers into a 21-3 advantage. Backed deep into his own territory, Roethlisberger avoided a hit in the end zone, then found wide receiver Mike Wallace, who beat single coverage for a 50-yard bomb along the right sideline. On the next play, he threw deep up the left sideline to tight end Heath Miller for 36 yards.
Roethlisberger’s first touchdown pass of the season was a 29-yarder to Wallace on which he laid the ball over the receiver’s inside shoulder to avoid tight coverage. His third scoring toss, a 14-yarder, was to a wide-open Miller, who had beaten a safety and a linebacker, as the Steelers were running out the clock late in the game.
In his postgame comments, Roethlisberger insisted he wasn’t any more nervous than in most games, despite the build-up to the contest because of his return.
"I think you get the jitters before every game … and then the game starts and it’s gone," he said.
Wallace said the quarterback was "more anxious than nervous, but he settled in and it was like it always was."
The Pittsburgh offense was considerably more balanced than in its first four games, when the Steelers averaged just 20.3 passes and never threw more than 26 times. The Steelers rushed 35 times and Roethlisberger, who only twice completed more than two consecutive passes, appeared content to not force the tempo.
"We’re playing such good defense," said tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown, "you don’t want to go overboard."
Ward said the improved balance of the offense was welcome and predicted the mix would continue for the Steelers, who moved to 4-1 and play at Miami next Sunday.
"I’ve been on teams where we threw the ball left and right and all over the place," Ward said. "And those are the seasons we didn’t go to the playoffs. I think, with Ben back, we can do a lot of things and stay pretty balanced."
Tomlin, who said from the beginning that Roethlisberger would return to the lineup after his suspension, and lauded the quarterback for his hard work this spring and in training camp, actually seemed relieved in having the chapter behind him.
"He was always going to come back and it was always going to be a (media) story," Tomlin said. "But it’s not our story. Our story is of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers, and it’s about winning games."
Which should be a lot easier now, Sunday’s uneven spots notwithstanding, with Roethlisberger back in the lineup.