The Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals Wildcard game was one of the most brutal, physical NFL bouts I've witnessed in recent memory. The intention of this piece is not to examine how the Bengals blew the game and allowed the Steelers to drive and win. I don't really care about any of that.
What I care about is understanding what to expect from the Steelers — and more specifically — Ben Roethlisberger, as the Denver Broncos prepare to host them this coming Sunday in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs.
Big Ben (famously) was carted off the field in Cincy with what was later reported as a separated shoulder. He received some treatment and when the Steelers needed one last drive, down by one point with less than two minutes to go, the two-time Super Bowl champion gunslinger took the field again.
It turns out it wasn't a separated shoulder. NFL Network reported that Ben has a sprained AC joint. According to Jonathan Gelber, a New York-based orthepedic surgeon, it's easy to get the two injuries confused.
"Many people get confused when they hear someone has a 'separated' shoulder while playing sports," Gelber said. "They usually think of a true shoulder dislocation where the ball separates from the socket. More often it is a sprain of the AC joint where the acromion (the front of the shoulder blade) separates from the collar bone."
There are several options to treat an AC joint sprain, according to USA Today's report. Time and rest, of course, is the first option. But for a high-level pro athlete, especially a football player, that's not often feasible. Steroid shots and platelet-rich-plasma (PRP) are likely treatment options. It's very common to put medication inside the joint for pain relief (injections).
However the Steelers approach it, they fully expect Roethlisberger to play on Sunday in Denver, albeit at less-than 100 percent. To get a better understanding of what we can expect, let's go to the film room and take a look at all eight of Big Ben's throws in the Steelers' final drive in Cincy.
Play 1: 1st-and-10 from PIT 9-yard-line
It's a short throw — surprise. Martavis Bryant displays some nifty moves, behind a convoy of good blocks, and picks up eight yards. This is Ben's first throw upon returning and it doesn't do much to test the defense or stretch the field.
Play 2: 2nd-and-2 from PIT 17-yard-line
With 2nd-and-2, Big Ben is operating out of the shotgun, as the Steelers try to hurry up. His target is Antonio Brown on a short square route. The pass is a little behind his target and the receiver is contacted by the defense to force the incompletion. Here, the ball travels no more than five yards.
Play 3: 3rd-and-2 from PIT 17-yard-line
Now faced with 3rd-and-2, Ben is flushed out of the pocket to the right. He finds his outlet running back. Fitzgerald Toussaint makes a great adjustment with the ball in the air and hauls in the pass fro the first down. He also manages to get out of bounds to stop the clock. Again, the ball travels no more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Play 4: 1st-and-10 from PIT 24-yard-line
Again, operating out of the shotgun, the approach is to throw short and fast. Even rushing just three, the Bengals don't even bother to cover the RB out of the backfield. They're playing prevent. Time is on their side. Ben hits his target in stride, but again, the ball doesn't even travel five yards from the line of scrimmage.
Play 5: 1st-and-10 from PIT 34-yard-line
This play is a bit of a snafu. Perhaps a miscommunication. Ben is looking downfield, but the center and right guard pull to screen block. Ben waits too long and takes a hit as he releases the ball toward the RB. Incomplete. This was a bit of a blown play, but this throw didn't even pass the line of scrimmage.
Play 6: 2nd-and-10 from PIT 34-yard-line
Time is running out and the Steelers are acting accordingly with a severely compromised QB. Here, they run another bubble screen to Bryant, this time on the opposite side of the field. Again, the ball fails to travel beyond the line of scrimmage. Still, Pittsburgh gets three yards out of it.
Play 7: 4th-and-3 from Pit 37-yard-line
It's all or nothing. On fourth down, Ben looks for his most trusty target, Antonio Brown. Brown runs a beautiful route out of the right slot and Ben hits him four yards beyond the line of scrimmage for the first down. This is a trusty oldie-but-goody for Ben and Brown and it picks up 12 huge yards.
Play 8: 1st-and-10 from CIN 47-yard-line
This is the infamous play that essentially gave the Steelers the opportunity to get into field goal range. Adam Jones would add the final death knell just moments later, but in the play at hand, we see Ben's deepest throw of this drive. He targets Antonio Brown again — about 14 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The ball is high and gives Vontaze Burfict the opportunity to lay a blindside shoulder into the defenseless Brown's head.
The game-winning field goal would occur moments later, ending the Bengals' season — buying the Steelers a trip to the Mile High City to take on the Broncos.
Ben Roethlisberger, on this drive, displayed true grit and poise, leading his team down the field for the go-ahead score. He showcased great decision making and pocket presence — and perhaps most importantly — the will to win. Those leadership traits made all the difference for the Steelers late in the game.
He was clearly not 100 percent. But he complete 5-of-8 passes. He was in pain and he let his coaches know his limitations.
“Coach [Todd Haley] called one deep one in there and, obviously, he had to because time was running out,” Roethlisberger said after the game. “So I went over to the sideline and said, ‘Coach you can’t do that anymore, I can’t throw it that far.’ We knew we had to work our way down the field.”
The receivers did a good job winning their matchups in the final drive, but going against the Broncos "No Fly Zone" this week, duplicating those results will be easier said than done, especially if Wade Phillips keeps Ben and the receivers guessing with a variation of zone and man coverages.
Ben will continue to get treatment throughout the week and hope to be ready to go in Denver. From what we're hearing coming of Pittsburgh, the team plans to start him. The Broncos will have a great opportunity to impose their will, with most of the field likely taken away, due to throwing limitations.
Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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