JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There is a difference between playing quarterback and being the quarterback. Yesterday, Ben Roethlisberger once again showed us the difference.
It wasn't long into the grudge match against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field that it became obvious Roethlisberger didn't have it. Not his usual accuracy. Not his typical command. Not the feel for the game, his receivers, and the opposing defense that often intersect and result in the kind of performance he put together some 10 days earlier against the Carolina Panthers, as one example.
There have been a bunch of outings similar to that perfect night on Roethlisberger's resume, and Steelers fans have come to know them when they see them, but what everyone was watching originate from Northern Florida was the polar opposite. In two games against this very opponent last year, Roethlisberger turned the ball over seven times and his team lost both, one of which ended its run through the postseason before it had a chance to begin. And instead of authoring some payback here yesterday, Roethlisberger seemed to be adding more chapters to the same, sad tale.
How the day ended was with Roethlisberger walking off the floor of TIAA Bank Field with the game ball securely in his grasp, which is where it belonged after the Steelers' improbable 20-16 victory over their tormentors in teal, and only partly because he had been the one to inch it across the goal line for the deciding points with five seconds left to play. It belonged in his hands because that's where he holds this team's destiny.
Anyway, back to the start of the afternoon. Until the final 41 seconds of the first half, the Steelers offense had managed just two first downs on six possessions. To that point, which means through the first 29 minutes and 19 seconds of game time – a span of six offensive possessions – Roethlisberger was 4-for-11 for 18 yards, with no touchdowns, and two interceptions. Computing his passer rating at that point, it was 5.3. Read that again, and then allow your mind to drift back to that Thursday night game against Carolina.
It's impossible to grasp the concept that those polar opposite performances came from the same person, and impossible is an apt description of the Steelers' chances of winning any game when their quarterback is playing like the guy who was pulling the trigger in that first half here against the Jaguars.
People who perceived the Steelers of last season to be mouthy likely would find them to be shrinking violets next to these Jaguars. Jalen Ramsey and Telvin Smith are Nos. 1 and 1a on the agitator's pecking order, and both of them were enjoying themselves immensely at being able to chronicle Roethlisberger's foibles to him personally and to the entire Steelers sideline.
That the half ended with the Steelers trailing by just 9-0 is a testament to their defense, but at the time it felt very much as if a 1-0 Jacksonville lead would be good enough to win on this day.
Inside the Steelers locker room at halftime, Roethlisberger delivered part pep talk, part mea culpa for his contributions to the situation in which his team found itself. He did it at high volume and with passion. It was meant to inspire and unite. As Coach Mike Tomlin has said about Roethlisberger, "When you tell Ben he can't do something, then you have his attention and that competitive spirit flows out of him. You put him in a hostile environment, and that competitive spirit flows through him."
Roethlisberger and his teammates were in a hostile environment, even though close to 50 percent of the 67,683 in attendance were twirling Terrible Towels. It had been made hostile by a Jaguars defense that seemed to be in complete control of the situation, especially by the midway point of the third quarter when Ramsey intercepted Roethlisberger in the end zone.
The Jaguars were in complete control until they weren't, and that's when Roethlisberger drew blood by buying enough time in the pocket to allow Antonio Brown to get lost by the Jaguars secondary. A perfect pass and 78 yards later, the Steelers trailed by 16-6.
In the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger made some plays, and his offensive teammates made some to bail him out of some tight situations. And in the meanwhile, the defense put up four straight three-and-outs to keep getting him the ball back. It was far from a one-man show, but the team effort had a clear leader and it was the quarterback.
The throw to Vance McDonald for an 11-yard touchdown on the penultimate series was perfect. The back-shoulder throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster on the final, decisive drive for a 35-yard gain was a thing of beauty. So was the ball to Brown for a 25-yard gain on the same possession. And his 1-yard dive across the goal line was supposed to be a shovel pass to McDonald, but when the Jaguars bottled that up, he improvised, he adapted, he overcame.
"You see the goal line, truthfully," said Roethlisberger. "I don't know what option I am on that [play], but it's way down the list. The Jaguars took away the other ones, and it's just one of those things where just – the competitiveness – the end zone seems like it's right there … so you can kind of take a gamble or a chance and then when you see it, you find a way to stretch it out."
As it was, Roethlisberger completed his 41st game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career, which broke a tie with John Elway for sixth-most by any quarterback since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. And after struggling mightily targeting Ramsey through three quarters, he went 5-of-6 in the fourth quarter with Ramsey as the nearest defender, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
"Not letting my guys down. That's the thing that bothers me the most," said Roethlisberger. "I don't get mad at myself when I throw interceptions because of the stats or anything like that. I get mad at myself because I feel like I let my guys down. They had a linebacker, No. 50 – we'll just use numbers so we don't say the names, who wanted to let me know every time I threw an interception. He found me and told me how may interceptions I threw. It's a little motivation, too."
Telvin Smith's mouth motivated Roethlisberger, and Roethlisberger motivated his teammates, who returned the favor by supporting him and the cause with their play. When it got to 0:00, the Steelers had an improbable victory, their quarterback walked off with the game ball, and once again the audience was treated to a visual explanation of the difference between playing quarterback and being the quarterback.