PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger let the ball go before Antonio Brown broke out of his route and turned toward the pylon. It was throw that required anticipation and trust, the kind the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and All-Pro wide receiver have connected on countless times during their near-decade together.
But not all years, or throws, are created equal.
Following a turbulent opening month in which the two stars struggled to develop anything resembling their usual rhythm, Roethlisberger’s perfectly timed 9-yard touchdown flip to Brown early in the second half of Sunday’s 41-17 romp over reeling Atlanta felt cathartic.
Brown dropped to his knees and raised his arms to the sky. Roethlisberger eschewed his usually understated celebration for an emphatic fist pump. When the two hooked up again early in the fourth quarter – a 47-yard strike down the left sideline that sealed Pittsburgh’s most complete performance of the season – all the frustration that appeared to be bubbling near the surface dissipated.
“We know we got to stay together regardless of what’s being said,” Brown said. “All of my catches, all of my touchdowns are from him, and that’s my guy. I live and die with him and the Wi-Fi was lit.”
No buffering. No squabbling. No temper tantrums. The Steelers (2-2-1) hope all of that is behind them after a week when Brown said his “Wi-Fi” connection with Roethlisberger was a bit shaky.
“Obviously, we got some things rolling,” Brown said after finishing with six receptions for 101 yards and the two touchdowns. “Everyone uplifted each other, believed in each other and the energy was great.”
And necessary. While head coach Mike Tomlin allowed that “it’s going to be quite some time before we get that September stench off of us,” his team responded with a dominant effort on both sides of the ball.
Roethlisberger finished with 250 yards passing and three touchdowns. James Conner ran for 110 yards and two scores and added 75 yards receiving. The defense sacked Atlanta’s Matt Ryan six times and held Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones without a catch until the fourth quarter.
“I don’t know if it was a ‘turnaround game,’ but it’s a game that we needed for sure because we know what we can do,” Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said. “We know how talented we are.”
Even if Pittsburgh didn’t exactly play like it over the opening four weeks, a stretch in which the club couldn’t seem to avoid distractions off the field – the continued absence of running back Le’Veon Bell and Brown’s social media missteps chief among them – or make enough plays on it.
A sense of normalcy returned against the Falcons (1-4). Conner, tasked with filling in for Bell while Bell waits … and waits … to sign his franchise tender, piled up 99 total yards in the first quarter alone. Conner soared for a 1-yard touchdown on Pittsburgh’s opening drive and raced in from 2 yards out in the third quarter as the Steelers turned a 13-10 halftime lead into a blowout.
“I was trying to set the tone early and we just had to start fast,” Conner said.
And finish even faster.
Pittsburgh had been shut out in the second half each of the last two weeks but scored four touchdowns in the final 23 minutes, the last coming when linebacker LJ Fort fell on a fumble by Ryan in the end zone with 3:35 to play.
“Hopefully this performance can catapult us in the right direction,” Fort said.
The expected shootout between two of the NFL’s best offenses – and worst defenses – never materialized. Atlanta trailed by 13 points by the end of the first quarter, scrambled to get back into it by halftime but never threatened after the break.
Ryan completed 26 of 38 passes for 285 yards and a touchdown but also spent a significant portion of the afternoon under duress and couldn’t get the ball to Jones when it mattered. Jones, who entered the game leading the NFL in yards receiving, caught five passes for a season-low 62 yards, all of them coming with the outcome basically decided.
“Obviously we want to get him involved,” Ryan said of Jones. “They made a pretty concerted effort to take him out and that created opportunities elsewhere.”
Mohamed Sanu caught four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown for Atlanta, but Devonta Freeman ran just eight times for 32 yards after missing three games because of injury. The Falcons managed 62 yards rushing and Pittsburgh teed off.
IT’S A … FOOTBALL
Pittsburgh second-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster added a new routine to his ever-expanding touchdown celebration repertoire: The ebullient 21-year-old feigned giving birth after hauling in an 18-yard score from Roethlisberger in the first half. Conner served as the obstetrician, handing the ball to Smith-Schuster, who rocked it to sleep.
The Steelers were called for a pair of unnecessary roughness penalties for hits on Ryan, one on linebacker Jon Bostic and the other on linebacker T.J. Watt, who tried but failed to pull his hands back in time when he went low on Ryan in the first half. While Tomlin stressed both calls were legitimate, he also expressed frustration in general.
“Some of the other stuff is a joke,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got to get better in (the NFL). These penalties are costing people games and jobs.”
Falcons: Welcome Tampa Bay to Atlanta next Sunday. The Falcons have won the last three meetings with the Buccaneers.
Steelers: Travel to AFC North rival Cincinnati next Sunday. Pittsburgh swept the season series from the Bengals last season.