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Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Bengals

It was a week that began like none other in his 17-year NFL career, but it ended for him and his teammates the way so many have this season. And when the dust had settled and the stadium had emptied, the Steelers were 9-0 thanks to a 36-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals that had his fingerprints all over it.

Ben Roethlisberger came to the Steelers via the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft, and it didn't take him all that long to establish himself as a franchise quarterback. Becoming the youngest quarterback to start in a Super Bowl and win it was a nice start, but Roethlisberger followed that with another championship a few seasons later. Those are the crown jewels on his resume, and he has supplemented those with a level of consistent production that has moved his name up the all-time list of statistical categories so often used to measure players at his position.

But this isn't a testimonial to recognize the sum of his accomplishments, but rather an accounting of what he has done for the Steelers lately. Or more accurately, what he is doing for the Steelers now.

Roethlisberger's 2020 season isn't some months-long nostalgia tour designed to dredge up anecdotes that ignite memories of what once were the glory days as the old man is sent on his way, but instead it's a new chapter in a storybook career.

Even though the surgery on his right elbow and a lot of the rehabilitation from that procedure took place a calendar year ago, that has become part of his, and the Steelers', 2020 story. The Comeback has been a raging success based on nothing more complicated than the Steelers setting a franchise record for most consecutive wins to open a season with eight and then adding to that record with a ninth, which came courtesy of the Bengals at Heinz Field.

Through the first eight, Roethlisberger had completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 1,934 yards, with 18 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a rating of 101.8. Very good numbers, certainly, but if you take those and project them over a 16-game season, he has had better years, years in which he attempted more and completed more and passed for more yards. But never has what he has done had such a positive impact on his team.

Maybe it began with the second half against the Ravens in Baltimore on Nov. 1, or maybe that's just when it became public, but since that Sunday he has taken his game and its contributions to the Steelers offense to an unprecedented level. Sometimes in these situations a quarterback might be referred to as a maestro, but not only is Roethlisberger conducting the orchestra he's also actively contributing with his smarts and his right arm.

The extent of Roethlisberger's control over the offense since at least the second half of the Ravens game is known only to those directly involved in it, but watching it unfold it's clear he is doing way more than simply executing what's called. Coloring outside the lines to some degree, to be sure, but doing it in a way that doesn't detract from the picture.

Against the Ravens in the first half on Nov. 1, the Steelers offense looked ineffective, incapable of carrying its weight and contributing to a victory. Same thing during large stretches of the game the following Sunday against the Cowboys in Dallas. Then against the Bengals a lot of the pretense was dropped and Roethlisberger was given control earlier and kept control longer. In fact, he seemed to be running things until he was relieved by Mason Rudolph after the outcome was in the bag.

The way it appears today, ceding control to Roethlisberger is the only way the Steelers offense is productive. There is no running the football, not effectively anyway, and not even against the Cowboys and Bengals, whose defenses barely had been putting up token resistance against the run all season. On plays that actually involved handing the ball to a running back and trying to block for him, the Steelers managed 48 yards on 16 attempts, and two of those attempts accounted for 24 of those yards.

The rest was all Roethlisberger. The third-down conversions, the red zone success, all four touchdowns. Again and again he was charged with making plays, and the majority of the time he delivered. He was more accurate with deep balls than he had been. He was on time with the shorter throws. Got the football to his receivers and generally kept it away from the Bengals defenders. And all of this was done primarily from a personnel grouping made up of four wide receivers and Eric Ebron, and on those occasions when it included James Conner he primarily was on the field to serve as Roethlisberger's bodyguard.

"You know, I just think they're a bunch of skilled football players," said Roethlisberger of the personnel grouping. "They make plays. It's not always pretty. I don't always give them good passes, but we move guys around enough, and they understand concepts and understand routes and understand what I'm asking and what Coach Randy (Fichtner) is asking, and they make plays. But when we're in those sets, a lot of times, a lot falls on the line, too, because there's not a lot of (guys in) protection. You don't have tight ends blocking. You don't have a back in there helping. So, it's five guys on whoever's rushing. You know, we're putting up good numbers when we're in those personnel groups, but really it starts up front with those guys giving me time to get the ball to the playmakers and let them make their plays."

That came after a week in which Roethlisberger was quarantined for being a close contact of a player who had tested positive for COVID-19, which meant he was allowed inside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex only for testing and medical treatment. There was no on-field work allowed, no watching any on-field work live, no face-to-face communication with coaches or teammates.

And such is his resume that Coach Mike Tomlin said publicly on more than one occasion that his decision to start Roethlisberger was a no-brainer, and that was shown to be more than lip service when the Steelers turned the offense over to him.

"Like I said earlier in the week, there was less anxiety in terms of dealing with Ben in these circumstances maybe than some of the circumstances he and I have been in the past where his health was a factor in terms of availability," said Tomlin. "His health was not a factor, so we had very little reservations about his ability to perform once we got him to the stadium."

Once the Steelers got to the stadium, their defense did what their defense does to rookie quarterbacks. Joe Burrow is a talented and poised quarterback, but against the Steelers he was less than his typical self. He completed 53 percent, was sacked four times and hit nine total times, the Bengals were held under 200 net yards passing, and the offense was 0-for-13 on third downs, 2-for-16 on possession downs.

Assuming that it's true about the early possessions of each half being critical to the outcome, the Steelers defense forced three punts and recovered a fumble on Cincinnati's first four possessions of the first half, and then forced four straight punts on Cincinnati's first four possessions of the second half.

"Man, we're really proud of these guys today, just because it was a challenging week," said Tomlin. "It wasn't a very fluid week for us in terms of dealing with COVID in the manner in which we had to. We had a number of significant guys who weren't allowed to come to work. We were working remotely from a meeting standpoint, didn't have a lot of exposure to our guys. So there was a lot of anxiety about just feeling good about the prep. It's good to kind of face that and persevere and come and have that type of performance. So it was something to build from there."

OK, so the Steelers aren't a one-man team. But it isn't the same team without that one man.