Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed the same kind of success a one-legged man would have in a butt-kicking contest.
It was unrealistic to expect much more from Roethlisberger as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback gimped his way through Monday night’s 20-3 road loss to the San Francisco 49ers. He wasn’t right from the get-go because of a badly sprained left ankle. Roethlisberger threw two of his three interceptions in the first quarter en route to his lowest quarterback rating (52.3) of the season.
In a 14-3 victory over Cleveland 11 days earlier, Roethlisberger could get away with a lack of mobility and the effect that being unable to properly plant had on his accuracy and velocity because the Browns are so bad. That isn’t the case with San Francisco (11-3), a physically punishing team that is pushing for a first-round playoff bye.
“I was probably the best 49er tonight,” Roethlisberger said afterward.
Nothing could have disguised that fact — even the malfunctioning stadium lights that temporarily threw Candlestick Park into darkness and delayed the game on two separate occasions.
The Steelers should have turned the lights out on Roethlisberger before kickoff. He had no business playing in such a state.
But Roethlisberger’s tough-guy reputation was made playing through pain.
The fact he did play stemmed from a combination of factors. This was an important game for the Steelers (10-4), who could have surpassed Baltimore (10-4) in the AFC North for the inside track on a first-round playoff bye. It could be argued that playing Roethlisberger showed coach Mike Tomlin’s lack of faith in any of the team’s three backups (Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon). But it speaks more of how much respect Tomlin has for his two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
“We always like what Ben provides us, not only from his quality of play but his leadership,” Tomlin said. “This guy is a tremendous competitor.”
Roethlisberger wouldn’t dwell on the postgame state of his ankle other than to say, “It hurts. I’ll leave it at that.” He never used the injury as an excuse when addressing the media, which was a tortured process in itself. Roethlisberger limped off the field and into the training room after the game. He emerged with a giant wrap of ice around his ankle and briefly used a wall for support before hobbling to his locker.
After a quick shower, Roethlisberger had his swollen ankle taped. With Big Ben’s foot — featuring sores and black-and-blue toes — propped in his lap, team trainer John Norwig proclaimed to the gathered reporters that Roethlisberger played “without any needles.” This was a reference to the pain-killing injections that Roethlisberger shunned in favor of what he described as a combination of “adrenaline,” Tylenol and Advil.
“We heard that [ESPN analyst] Steve Young and those guys said pregame, ‘Oh, he’ll go shoot it up,’ ” Roethlisberger said. “No, we don’t do that. [Steelers trainers] would never put me out there and endanger me or anybody on this team to do that.
“I just think it’s silly that they assume that’s what you’ve got to do. Obviously, we could have done that and it would have helped a lot. But that’s kind of crazy to do and take that chance because you can further injure yourself.”
Not that Tomlin did Roethlisberger any favors by allowing him to take the field.
“I’ll go out and play at 5 percent. I don’t care,” Roethlisberger said. “I told Coach that. I said, ‘You make the call. You’re the head coach. I’m going to give you everything I’ve got no matter what (the decision) is.’ ”
Roethlisberger tried but couldn’t showcase any of the pocket mobility or roll-out skills that make him so dangerous. He dinked-and-dunked Pittsburgh downfield with short passes on the game’s opening possession, but Roethlisberger’s limitations were exposed when his attempt to connect with wide receiver Mike Wallace in the end zone was intercepted by cornerback Carlos Rogers.
“I didn’t get deep enough on the drop,” said Roethlisberger, who played with a protective brace for his ankle. “I rushed it. I should have held onto it.”
Roethlisberger’s second interception was a high pass that caromed off the hands of tight end Heath Miller and into the arms of 49ers safety Dashon Goldson. The third turnover came late in the fourth quarter on a heave to Wallace that Roethlisberger admits he forced “just trying to take a shot down the field.”
By that point, the Steelers were down by 17 points for reasons that extended beyond Roethlisberger. San Francisco’s top-ranked run defense prevented Roethlisberger from getting much help from a ground attack led by Rashard Mendenhall (15 carries for 64 yards). Pittsburgh’s defense failed to force a turnover as the 49ers finally overcame their red-zone woes with two short-range touchdowns.
San Francisco’s special teams also excelled thanks to kicker David Akers (two field goals and two touchbacks) and Andy Lee, whose net average (49.2 yards) actually exceeded his gross (47.5) on six punts. Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt in the third quarter and didn’t get the chance for another long attempt just before halftime because the Steelers botched their two-minute offense.
“That was 49er football tonight,” Tomlin said. “We played the game on their terms in a manner in which they play winning football. They created turnovers. They got a few concept plays. They controlled the ball offensively. We didn’t do enough.”
To remain in the running for a postseason bye, the Steelers must win Saturday against visiting St. Louis (2-12). Roethlisberger, who has the word “Courage” tattooed down the right side of his torso, wouldn’t say whether he expects to start.
But the fact Roethlisberger refused to leave the 49ers game in the fourth quarter when asked by Tomlin foreshadows who will be under center for the Steelers.
“I’m sure any injury gets better when you rest,” Roethlisberger said. “I told Coach I could give it everything I got. Obviously, it wasn’t good enough.”
Roethlisberger needs more healing or the Steelers must find a way to compensate for his inadequacies, which will become increasingly difficult against a higher caliber of postseason competition. Otherwise, the 49ers loss showed that Roethlisberger soon will have plenty of time to rest.