STARKEY: Ben Roethlisberger rediscovers deep ball just in time for Pittsburgh Steelers

JOE STARKEY
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) plays against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

We were wrong. We were right.

Wrong about Ben Roethlisberger, if we thought he was losing it fast and couldn't get the ball down the field consistently anymore (although we had ample evidence of such).

Right if we believed the only way the Steelers could save their rapidly declining offense was to ... all together now ... GET THE BALL DOWN THE FIELD!

You know what? They did it.

He did it.

Roethlisberger rediscovered his deep ball just in time in leading the Steelers to the biggest comeback of the Mike Tomlin era. They also clinched the AFC North title and sparked a whole bunch of renewed hope for the playoffs.

The dink-and-dunk suddenly became the hunk-and-chunk in the second half of a 28-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. There was no reason to believe it would happen, but it happened — chunks of yards, hunks of yards everywhere.

After piddling his way to a 98-yard first half, Roethlisberger apparently made a halftime speech, telling his guys they needed to enjoy themselves more.

Well, what's more fun than chucking the ball all over the yard?

He'd gotten away from deep ball: That always seemed to be Ben's idea of a good time, anyway, but he'd gotten so far away from it. Question was, why? Did he not trust his line to protect him on longer-developing plays, or was he simply declining?

This getting rid of it in a split second for a 3-yard slant on third-and-10 has its place, I suppose, but if old Ben didn't reappear real soon, the Steelers were cooked.

Down 24-7 early in the third quarter turned out to be the time — although Roethlisberger seemed to gain a spark near the end of the first half, completing a few seemingly meaningless intermediate throws just before the gun.

He went nuts thereafter, taking advantage of a depleted Colts secondary to the tune of 23-of-29 for 245 yards and three touchdowns. He also kept a tradition alive, in terms of winning a big game while his draft of 2004 classmate Philip Rivers was losing one.

Colts coach Frank Reich, who knows a great comeback when he sees one, could only watch.

"You've got a future Hall of Fame quarterback over there, and he got hot," Reich said. "He just kept finding completions to keep drives alive, and found a way to make a couple of big plays."

He sure did.

Hunks and chunks: Hunks and chunks everywhere ...

►Twenty-five yards down the seam to Chase Claypool on the opening drive of the second half.

►Thirty-nine yards to Diontae Johnson for a touchdown, right after the Steelers had been stopped at the Colts 2. This was Roethlisberger's best true deep ball of the season — and one of Johnson's best catches. It changed momentum and cut the Colts' lead to 24-14.

►Twenty-four- and 21-yard interference penalties on the next drive, to set up Eric Ebron's short touchdown catch.

►Twenty-five-yard dime to JuJu Smith-Schuster for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Roethlisberger delivered a vintage pump fake, freezing a safety.

The deeper balls made it easier to throw underneath, too, and might even open up the run game (now that would be a true miracle).

"Throw the ball deep, you wanna know what happens?" analyst Tony Romo said. "You're gonna get the safeties back, and then guys underneath have more space simply because you attacked down the field earlier. It's crazy, I know."

Line gets high marks: Give the line high marks for keeping Ben clean on the longer throws. That wasn't the case in Cincinnati. In all seriousness, I wonder if they were out of practice on such plays.

Going no-huddle helped.

"The line gave me time," Roethlisberger said. "Sometimes when you're up-tempo, you can slow down a pass rush and make defenses call, sometimes, less exotic things."

Not that it was perfect. Claypool made one of the biggest plays on the go-ahead touchdown drive when he arm-blocked Rock Ya-Sin to break up a possible pick six.

If you hear people tell you they knew all along Ben was fine, don't believe them. They had precious little evidence. Nobody could have predicted what we saw.

It made me wonder: Was Roethlisberger trolling us all season on the deep ball thing, or did he basically say, "Heck with it, let's fire away" when the Steelers fell behind by 17?

If the former, he did a great job impersonating a guy who couldn't beat defenses over the top anymore. He was pretty much the worst quarterback in the NFL on throws that traveled at least 10 yards and was coming off a 1-for-14 performance on such passes — his worst in 15 years — against the Bengals.

If the latter, well, it wouldn't be the first time desperation changed somebody's life.

Either way, who cares?

Ben's back.