PITTSBURGH – No, Ben Roethlisberger, grumbling last week about the inconvenience of the COVID-19 schedule disruption the Pittsburgh Steelers had to navigate was not a good look.
Not when the pandemic — which has cost the lives of more than 213,000 and economic hardship for so many more — has thrown this country for such a loop.
Not when they finally hosted fans at Heinz Field on Sunday, fewer than 5,000 in all, as another sign that the shutdown will be peeled away one layer at a time.
Not when you can’t get an even-money bet that a second wave won’t be worse.
And just think: It could have been worse for the Steelers, who have done a stellar job in managing the COVID-19 predicament yet had to take an unscheduled bye last week because of the outbreak that has stymied the Tennessee Titans.
Poor Pittsburgh. Not.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (Photo: Keith Srakocic, AP)
Look at the Denver Broncos. They’ve got a 17-day break on tap. The Titans are keeping their fingers crossed they’ll play Tuesday night. The Patriots flew on game day last week before falling at Kansas City, and now there’s no game this week, with their headquarters closed and Cam Newton’s status on the COVID-19 scale still tenuous.
As this COVID-19 situation seeps into the NFL’s season, Pittsburgh’s schedule blip is on the mild side.
Surely, Roethlisberger had to be speaking off the cuff, or just with some sort of tunnel vision, in casting the Steelers as some type of victim for having a game pushed back. From a purely personal vantage point, it’s understandable. The Steelers quarterback, trying to rebound after the bulk of his 2019 season was wiped out by an elbow injury, is regaining his rhythm during the campaign that didn’t afford a preseason. He’s knocking off some rust and as any good quarterback (and some bad ones, too) will attest, timing with receivers is part of the equation.
But I’m guessing Roethlisberger has fully grasped the reality check by now, a few days since his misfortunate whine. When I asked him for his big-picture view of the COVID-19 cloud, following a 38-29 victory against the Eagles, he had it all in perspective.
“Well, knock on wood, we’ll just do our part to keep trying to be safe,” Roethlisberger said during his postgame Zoom conference. “I think that first and foremost, you’ve got to do that. I know my wife is locking the house down and stuff like that. So, I think we all take it pretty serious around here.
“Hopefully, we can continue to do that. I know this week will be a challenge because we’re allowed to have fans. People coming to games and family flying in and friends and things like that. So, the challenge will continue to arise, and we’ll have to just keep trying to answer the bell and do what we can to be smart. I don’t even know what things have evolved today (across the NFL), but I’m sure the schedule is going to keep changing. So, we just have to be prepared to play a game whenever they tell us to and give it everything we have.”
It wasn’t easy for Pittsburgh to finish off the Eagles (1-3-1) and secure their first 4-0 start since 1979. Yet Roethlisberger had a special connection with rookie receiver Chase Claypool, who caught seven passes for 110 yards with three touchdowns, and also scored on a jet sweep.
Roethlisberger’s 35-yard scoring strike with 2:59 left iced the game after Philadelphia rallied to score 16 unanswered points to produce some dramatic sweat.
It was a fitting finishing touch for Roethlisberger, who had his most efficient game of the season. He completed 27 of 34 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns without a pick, all components to a season-best 125.4 passer rating. But beyond the stats, he deftly changed the play at the line of scrimmage to call Claypool’s number from a new formation that was just crafted for this week’s game.
“The coolest part about the whole thing is we’ve never run the play with that formation or that group on the field,” Roethlisberger said.
Like old times, though, Roethlisberger improvised with aplomb. He extended a few other plays, too, sidestepping would-be sacks, as we’ve seen throughout his career. Yes, he’s clearly back. At one point, he directed Pittsburgh to scores on five consecutive drives. And with a 10-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Roethlisberger and his surgically repaired elbow are on track to make a strong bid for NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
“I’m still missing the deep ball too much, still overthrowing it,” Roethlisberger said. “I know last week I talked about it and said I’d rather overthrow it than underthrow it. But I’ve got to figure it out. I don’t know if the doc made my arm, I guess, a little stronger. I’ve got to figure out how to connect on those deep balls a little more.”
Carson Wentz, the Eagles quarterback, might gladly exchange problems with Roethlisberger. Injuries have ravaged Wentz’s offensive line and depleted his receiving corps. Now there is a quarterback who might have a gripe. Wentz also had the misfortune of facing a big-play Pittsburgh defense that kept him under siege, which was reflected by the five sacks and duress that resulted in two interceptions.
Yeah, one man’s problems are not quite as bad as the next guy’s woes.
In any event, the Steelers have demonstrated a keen ability to adjust – and not only to the schedule.
With running back James Conner lacking consistent explosiveness (2.9 yards a carry), O-coordinator Randy Fichtner creatively kept the Eagles defense on its toes with a heavy dose of jet sweeps or faux reverse runs by the wideouts – one of which turned into a 58-yard run by Ray-Ray McCloud that was the biggest gain from a 136-yard rushing output. And Claypool knifed into the end zone for a 2-yard score on a sweep.
“We kind of threw the kitchen sink at them’” Roethlisberger said.
Claypool also scored on a 5-yard reception that came off a unique bunch formation, with four receivers aligned to the left. After a quick flare pass, Claypool followed his convoy of three blockers – Conner, Vance McDonald and Trey Edmunds – into the end zone. Roethlisberger said the Steelers have practiced that play for three or four weeks, but finally used it in a game. And it worked.
It’s still early, but if the Steelers keep making the adjustments as they have lately, they will clearly position themselves as a serious contender to be there at the finish.
If, of course, this NFL season indeed gets to the desired finish line.
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