Ben led the Steelers to victory in his first game back.
“And starting at Quarterback, #7, from Miami of Ohio…”
Walking into Heinz Field on Sunday, geared up to watch the Steelers take on the Browns, I started wondering what the reaction of the stadium would be like when the PA announcer said those words. This was going to be Ben’s (just Ben, he no longer likes the ‘Big Ben’ moniker) first game back from his league mandated 4-game suspension, and I knew they eyes of the sporting world would be on Pittsburgh for this game. Would there be protestors? How would fans treat him? How rusty was he after spending a month in exile, and would he disrupt the flow of a team that is already 3-1 without him? Those were all questions that I am sure hundreds of members of the National media, all of whom seem to be standing on the sidelines, were interested in finding answers for.
First issue: Protestors. There was apparently a small protest in front of Heinz Field before the game; however, it must have been very small because I never even saw it. I did see a picture later with about 5 or 6 individuals, with bandanas over their faces, holding up signs telling Steeler fans to not support a rapist. Not much of a protest, I would guess they were probably gone before kickoff.
Second issue: the fans. Any question of how the fans would react to Ben coming back quickly disappeared during the starting lineups. Coach Tomlin decided to introduce the offense for this game, coincidence? I think not. When the PA announcer shouted those words most Steeler fans have waited to hear, the entire stadium erupted. I would dare say close to 99.99% of the 65,168 fans in attendance were standing, cheering, and waving their Terrible Towels. The sound was deafening, and you could literally feel the stadium rock back and forth. The wind that was generated by thousands of Terrible Towels being waved simultaneously just about blew my hat off. Once the game started, the fans welcomed Ben back with another standing ovation as he took the field for his first series of the season. No matter what happened in the past, and we may never truly know exactly what happened, the fans showed that the New Ben is welcomed back with open arms, as long as the old Big Ben doesn’t show back up.
Final issue: how will Ben mesh with a 3-1 team? The Steelers’ first offensive series ended with a poorly thrown ball that was easily intercepted and returned deep into Pittsburgh territory. Fortunately for the Steelers, and what has got to be a very bad omen for the rest of the league, Ben and the offense came back out and started rolling after the INT. Ben finished the game 16-27, for 257 yards and 3 TDs to his three favorite targets. One each for Hines, Wallace, and Miller. There was a little rust, but by the second half it looked as though Ben had brushed most of it off, and he was able to finish his first game with a passer rating well above 100. The Steelers are simply a completely different team with Ben under center. For instance, the Browns punter consistently pinned the Steelers back all day with some great punts. One drive started inside their own 5 yard line, and in the first 4 games of this season I am sure we would have seen three straight Mendenhall rushes just to get room for the punter. With Ben as the QB, the first play was a 50 yard bomb to Wallace that Ben completed with a defender draped all over him. Next pass was a 38 yard precision bullet that hit Heath Miller in stride. He finished up the 94 yard drive with an 8 yard TD to Hines Ward. Three passes, 96 yards, and a touchdown. I love what Batch and Dixon brought to the table early in the season, but the offense is just a different animal all together with Ben back.
The rest of the NFL should be on notice now after this game. Everyone in the league knows the Steelers’ defense is top notch, and doesn’t look like they are going to give up many yards or points at all this season. Throw in an offensive attack that now has a passing attack to go with a pounding running game, and you have a combination that the other teams in the AFC won’t be looking forward to facing anytime soon.
Are they going to run the table and go 15-1? I doubt it. But if the offense continues where it left off and catches up even somewhat to the level that the D is playing out, a run deep into the playoffs should be expected from this bunch.