PITTSBURGH — Most days when the starting quarterback limps off the field, the resulting emotion as the backup jogs out to the huddle isn't relief.
Sunday, however, wasn't most days. And Ben Roethlisberger isn't most backups.
Wearing a modified cleat to protect his sprained left foot, Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers tormented the Cleveland Browns yet again in a 30-9 triumph that sent the Steelers surging into their bye week while providing a reminder that even on one good leg, Roethlisberger remains at the height of his considerable powers.
Roethlisberger laid out the proof over three sometimes spectacular hours, throwing for 379 yards and three scores and hardly looking like the same guy taken to the locker room in a cart a week earlier.
"The guy was literally in a boot and on crutches Monday," wide receiver Antonio Brown said. "I can't speak highly enough about him. He is a tremendous warrior. You never know what he is capable of doing. He is on the brink of greatness."
And when he's on the field, so is Pittsburgh's offense. The Steelers (6-4) rolled up 459 yards of total offense, not including the 141 yards Pittsburgh picked up thanks to a series of pass interference penalties against the Browns, whose depleted secondary simply couldn't keep up.
All this from a player who began the sun-splashed afternoon posing with former teammates who gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Pittsburgh's fifth Super Bowl title and walked onto Heinz Field as the "in case of emergency, break glass" option behind Landry Jones. Head coach Mike Tomlin gave the start to Jones after Jones took the majority of reps in practice while Roethlisberger gave his foot more time to heal.
It's a decision Roethlisberger hardly argued, though one that made his coach look a little too cautious in retrospect. When Jones' left ankle turned awkwardly after getting stepped on during Pittsburgh's second possession, Roethlisberger and his familiar No. 7 jersey started warming up.
Roethlisberger's first drive ended with a Pittsburgh field goal. His third with a touchdown flip to a wide-open Brown. By the time the half ended, the Steelers led by 18 and Roethlisberger had already piled up 286 yards through the air.
"I knew when he came in, he was going to be great for us," Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller said.
Roethlisberger was quick to deflect the praise, something he might not have done during that breakout season 10 years ago when he became the youngest quarterback ever to win it all. He has a far deeper respect for his station in life and for the talent around him. He's also largely ditched the swashbuckling tactics that used to be his trademark.
Roethlisberger no longer tries to hold onto the ball like a cranky toddler does a blankie. He only took one sack after stepping in for Jones and was rarely hit, instead getting rid of the ball and letting Brown and Martavis Bryant go to work.
"We needed to go out there and say that no one is going to stop us," Roethlisberger said. "The only time we get stopped is when we stop ourselves."
The performance put the Steelers into the top of the AFC wild card race heading into their week off. Heady territory for a team missing running back Le'Veon Bell and center Maurkice Pouncey, both out for the season with injuries.
The steady play of replacements DeAngelo Williams and Cody Wallace have enabled Pittsburgh to survive. The Steelers are even 3-2 in games Roethlisberger didn't start, though he had more than a little to do with that last victory.
Jones managed to make it back to the sideline with his ankle heavily taped but there was no discussion about him coming back in even with Pittsburgh comfortably in front, a decision Jones jokingly figured came down to economics.
"(Ben) is maybe the most expensive backup in the NFL," Jones said with a laugh.
If only for a couple of series. When Pittsburgh returns from its break to prepare for a trip west to face Seattle, Roethlisberger will be back in his customary spot. So will his team as it battles for playoff position.
"We've got a heck of a stretch run coming up after the bye," he said. "We're just trying to get as healthy as we can and be ready to go."
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