SAN DIEGO – This was a big win for these Steelers, and the statement comes with the understanding that because it's barely mid-October in the process of a regular season that runs through New Years Day, its bigness is relative. But the size of what the Steelers accomplished here comes from them facing their reality and finding a way to win a football game in spite of it.
That reality, of course, is playing without Ben Roethlisberger. The finding a way to win part came courtesy of the 24-20 final.
The "standard is the standard" concept has become a mandatory part of existing in a sport where injuries can dramatically re-shape a team's roster from one week to the next. It can turn into a brutal six-month test of attrition, and the key to survival is finding ways to continue to win as replacement parts are added as necessary.
That's the concept. And maybe it can be ingrained into the heads of the players called on to replace the injured, and maybe their teammates will see them as capable of doing the job, but the starting quarterback is a different deal. A starting quarterback who's one of the three best in football is a very different deal.
"It's not any different," Coach Mike Tomlin maintained on the day before the Steelers played the Baltimore Ravens, their first complete game without Roethlisberger. "The things we do to help a quarterback are more highlighted than the things we do to help a guard, but we do things to bring the game to the player regardless of what position the player plays or who the player is. They're just more highlighted and more talked about when it's the quarterback position."
Indeed. Playing without Roethlisberger – and more pointedly winning without Roethlisberger – has been highlighted and talked about a lot since he injured his left knee in St. Louis. But now, some of that can stop because they did it. The Steelers won a game without Ben. And they won a game without the franchise quarterback in which the offense drove 80 yards in 12 plays in the final 2:38 for the game-winning touchdown while converting 3-for-3 on third downs along the way.
During the pregame warm-up period before Monday night's game, Roethlisberger was out in the middle of the field, wearing his knee brace, and gently dropping back and throwing 20-yard passes to Martavis Bryant. It was encouraging to see Roethlisberger performing football moves, albeit gingerly, but when the session ended it just seemed as though the Steelers still were looking at a couple/three more games without him. And that was after the game they were warming to play.
After Roethlisberger had been injured, the Steelers had held on to defeat the Rams, but planning and preparing for a game without him and then going out and securing a victory was in a different category. In some ways, it was more difficult, because just as they were going to have the benefit of preparing to play without him, their opponent was going to have the benefit of preparing for the Steelers as a team quarterbacked by Mike Vick.
In their first attempt, the Steelers defense played well and Le'Veon Bell became the first individual in 30 games to rush for 100 yards against a Ravens defense, and he averaged 5.9 per carry along the way. But there was no rhythm to the offense, there didn't seem to be a good idea of what Vick could execute, and the unit didn't look to be capable of sustaining even a complementary passing attack.
The second attempt came against the Chargers, and the expectation was that there would be significant improvement. Some of that hope was based on the coaches being more familiar with Vick's skill-set, and another part was based on Vick being more familiar with his new teammates.
But it wasn't working out that way, and through three-plus quarters against the Chargers the Steelers looked to be a team about to lose a second straight game in which their young developing defense played well enough to win. The Steelers' first 10 offensive possessions here went like this: punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, interception on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, punt, punt, punt. They had gotten a 70-yard pick-six from Antwon Blake, but 10 points wasn't going to be enough to hold off San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers.
The offense came alive thanks to a big play, with Vick doing what he does best as a passer. It was a double-move by Markus Wheaton in which Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers also was flagged for holding Wheaton as he sped by, but in the end it was a fairly simple pitch-and-catch that ended in a 72-yard touchdown that tied the game, 17-17.
The Chargers would answer with a 54-yard field goal from Josh Lambo to take a three-point lead with just a bit more than two minutes remaining in the game. This time it was going to be more difficult for the Steelers offense. This time the unit was going to have to drive the ball down the field. It was going to have to string together more successful plays – with no negative ones mixed in – than it had been able to do since Roethlisberger was injured.
It was during those two minutes and change when this offense came together, and in the process it convinced everyone on the Steelers' sideline that there can be victories without Ben. Vick converted three third downs – one with a 15-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey, another with a 24-yard run, and the third with a 16-yard pass to Heath Miller.
That set it up for Coach Mike Tomlin to double-down on everything by making a call that showed his players he believes in them while putting the onus of the outcome solely on his own shoulders. Tomlin went all-in for the victory in regulation, and the moment Le'Veon Bell got the ball across the plane of the goal line these Steelers became a different team.
A closer team, a more confident team. Very likely a better team.