Behind Enemy Lines: Roethlisberger's return will set this right

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had no trouble working up a good case of anger Sunday. "Hacked off," he described himself. Of course, he was. He had just watched his defense blow a four-point lead in the final 68 seconds, saw his offense waste two scoring opportunities after turnovers, watched kicker Jeff Reed miss two field-goal attempts that he normally drills, saw too many of his guys show a disappointing lack of poise and intelligence by taking bad penalties and watched the whole bunch of 'em lose a division game that was there for the taking at Heinz Field against the Baltimore Ravens, 17-14.

But I have to be honest here. I'm having a hard time being mad at the fellas even though it wasn't any fun watching them lose to the hated Ravens. Nor should you be mad. The Steelers are 3-1 and share first place in the AFC North Division with the Ravens despite playing the four games without suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. I'm thinking they've done pretty well. No, they've done better than pretty well. They've done terrific work. Now, they're sitting pretty knowing they'll have Roethlisberger back for the next game against the Cleveland Browns at home Oct. 17. The wonderful possibilities seem endless.

"I'm sure Ben is going to give us a little extra pep-me-up this week after this tough loss," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said.

Roethlisberger is going to be great again, better even than he was when he led the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles. He wants to right the wrong of putting his teammates in what appeared to be a huge crater by getting suspended and not being there for them. It doesn't matter that they saved his fanny by winning three times with third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon and fourth-stringer Charlie Batch. "We never make excuses. It's been that way around here forever," Farrior said. Roethlisberger still is going to be driven to be great. "Dude is a competitor and a winner," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. The only thing that can stop Roethlisberger is Roethlisberger. You know, if he tries to do too much too quickly and tries to make up for his suspension all at once. I like to think he's too smart and too experienced to allow that to happen.

The same is true for the rest of the veteran Steelers players, who are facing an adjustment of sorts with Roethlisberger coming back.

"I'm sure the feeling outside of this locker room is that we're OK because Ben is coming back and everybody can relax," Farrior said. "But that's definitely not the thinking in here. All the guys have to stay focused and keep working. Ben isn't going to do it alone."

Make no mistake, Farrior — not to mention Tomlin — will preach that message this week and next as the Steelers ramp up their preparations for the Browns. That's why Farrior is a great leader and Tomlin is a strong coach. The younger players need to hear it. It won't hurt the older players to hear it, either.

"The thing we learned through all of this is that every man is a part of the team, but no man has to be the team," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said.

"We have to treat it like we can't rely on Ben. We can't say to him, 'OK, we know you haven't played in four games, but we've done our part, now you take over.' It can't be like that.

"Now that doesn't mean we're not excited to get him back. Believe me, we're all excited."

Said wide receiver Hines Ward, "Ben definitely makes us a better ball club. We'll be better as an offense when he comes back."

Tomlin knows that even if he wasn't in a mood to talk about it Sunday. "We'll see him tomorrow," he said, biting off the words when asked about Roethlisberger's return. When pressed for elaboration, he said, again tersely, "He'll be back tomorrow."

I'm not sure what that was about, but I'm fairly certain Tomlin will be thrilled to see Roethlisberger walk through the door at the team's South Side headquarters. He is no fool. How did Ward put it? "Ben is our franchise guy."

As for the problems that irked Tomlin, they are fixable.

The coach won't put up with the penalties -- 11 for 88 yards -- especially the horrible false starts against guard Chris Kemoeatu and tight end Matt Spaeth in the final 2:35 when the Steelers were trying to get a first down to end the game. "That's Steelers beating Steelers," Tomlin growled.

Reed isn't likely to miss again from 49 and 45 yards even if he does kick to the open end at Heinz Field. Those third-quarter misses were hurtful because the Steelers' defense created turnovers at the Ravens' 27 and 33.

As for that late collapse by the defense, it's not an indication of bad things to come. It doesn't mean there will be a re-do of last season when the defense blew fourth-quarter leads in five losses. The Steelers merely were beaten by a hot quarterback, Joe Flacco. This was, by far, the best he has looked against their defense. "He can make all of the throws and he showed that at the end of the game," Clark said.

There's only one way to describe Flacco after he went 4 for 4 for 40 yards on the winning touchdown drive: He was Roethlisberger-like.

Now, I can't wait to see the real Roethlisberger. Oct. 17 can't get here soon enough.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad