PITTSBURGH — It’s not hard to imagine Ben Roethlisberger’s joy Monday night after his first game in 364 days. The 145th regular-season win of his Hall of Fame-caliber Steelers career — 26-16 against the New York Football Giants — might have meant more to him than any of the others because of everything he had to do get back on the football field after his elbow surgery.
But it’s also not hard to imagine Roethlisberger’s heartache. He watched two of his offensive linemen — Stefen Wisniewski and Zach Banner — go down with potentially serious injuries. He knew what was going through their mind after the game. It was the same thoughts that went through his mind last season when he blew out his right elbow. The fear of an uncertain future is almost unbearable.
It was a shame in so many ways that Wisniewski went out late in the game with a pectoral muscle tear and Banner left with a knee injury that left him in tears.
Without the injuries, it would have been a near-perfect night for the Steelers, especially for Roethlisberger, who threw three touchdown passes and didn’t commit a turnover. He completed passes to nine different receivers. It was as if he and JuJu Smith-Schuster picked up where they left off at the end of the 2018 season. Smith-Schuster had six catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns. Roethlisberger and Diontae Johnson found their groove in the second half with Johnson finishing with six catches for 57 yards.
“I’m so thankful,” Roethlisberger told ESPN on the MetLife Stadium turf, clutching the game ball that he surely took home to add to his significant collection.
“I told the guys in the locker room before the game that the reason I came back is because of them. I don’t need to accomplish anything personally anymore. It’s about being with a defense that I think is as good as any I’ve ever played with, skilled guys that are young and fun to play with. And then, of course my line, who I love to death and they love me. They’re the reason that I came back to play.”
You don’t think the other Steelers were happy to welcome Roethlisberger back, do you? After the season they had to endure last season with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at quarterback? After they missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record?
“Ben was on fire,” Cam Heyward gushed.
It didn’t start that way for Roethlisberger. He nearly lost a fumble on the Steelers’ first possession when, under pressure, he tried to dump the ball to James Conner behind him. He later threw passes behind Conner and Vance McDonald. He also took a delay-of-game penalty, although he argued the clock should have been re-set.
But Roethlisberger also made some outstanding throws. One went to rookie Chase Claypool, whose first NFL catch was terrific and went for a 28-yard gain on the right sideline. Another went to new tight end Eric Ebron for an 18-yard gain. A third, which Roethlisberger threw off his back foot, went for a 10-yard touchdown to Smith-Schuster.
But the game really took a positive turn for Roethlisberger on a two-minute drive at the end of the first half when he took the Steelers 78 yards in eight plays for a touchdown that gave them a 16-10 lead. There was a nice back-shoulder throw to James Washington for 21 yards. There were two short passes to Smith-Schuster that Smith-Schuster turned into 17 and 14 yard gains. There was a 13-yard pass over the middle to Washington that Washington turned into a touchdown by running through cornerback Julian Love. There even was an 11-yard scramble by Roethlisberger, not bad for an old quarterback at 38.
“I thought that was significant,” Mike Tomlin said of that touchdown drive.
“We were able to kind of pick the tempo up, dictate a little bit more of the coverages and things we were going to see,” Roethlisberger said. “The guys gave me enough time. In those situations, it’s how fast I get the ball out of my hand and let those guys make plays.”
A strong game for Benny Snell Jr. helped Roethlisberger and the offense in a big way. In for injured Conner, Snell had 19 carries for 113 yards, his first career 100-yard game.
Conner, who left in the second quarter with an ankle injury after just six carries for nine yards, did not appear to have a serious problem. But his bad luck with injuries continued in an almost unbelievable way.
Unfortunately, Wisniewski’s and Banner’s injuries appeared to be much worse. Roethlisberger immediately went to the disconsolate Banner to comfort him and whispered into his ear for nearly a minute as Banner sat on the bench before being helped to the locker room.
That was the toughest part of Roethlisberger’s night. Facing the Football Giants’ defense was easy, by comparison.