PITTSBURGH (AP) — Time to stop talking about Ben Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired right elbow.
At least for now.
Whatever lingering doubts Roethlisberger or the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers might have had over the state of their franchise quarterback’s passing arm were put to rest during a relatively drama-free 26-16 win over the New York Giants in the season opener on Monday night.
Playing for the first time in 364 days, the 38-year-old completed 21 of 32 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns. And while he only truly let it loose a couple of times, he was efficient. He was patient. He was even a little spry, running for an 11-yard gain at one point.
While Roethlisberger wasn’t dominant, dominance wasn’t required. Not on a night where the defense produced three sacks and two turnovers while holding New York running back Saquon Barkley to just 6 yards rushing. For a team that expects to compete with Baltimore for the AFC North title, it was a promising start. Even if it was just a start.
“We said afterward it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t even good some of the time offensively,” Roethlisberger said. “But at the end of the day we found a way to win.”
A win that came with plenty of what coach Mike Tomlin likes to call “meat on the bone,” meaning there is plenty to work on ahead of a visit by Denver on Sunday. That work, however, will not include any uncertainty about Roethlisberger’s status. He’s back. And so might be an offense that scored three touchdowns in a game just three times during his extended absence in 2019.
“Ben told us we can be great individuals,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said, “But if we work all together and we’re good, we can be great as a team.”
Outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree picked up right where they left off in 2019, as one of the best edge rush tandems in the NFL. Watt grabbed his fourth career interception in addition to a tackle for loss and two hits on New York quarterback Daniel Jones. Dupree, who is in a contract year after the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him, turned the game in Pittsburgh’s favor for good when he pressured Jones into a floater that ended up in the arms of Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward and ended a 19-play New York drive.
“Bud is a dangerous guy, as is T.J.,” Tomlin said. “When you have an outside linebacker tandem like that in the 3-4 defense, you have an opportunity to play great defense and we are cognizant of the contributions of those two men and appreciative of it and that is why were are excited about the group that we have.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Perhaps no group was affected more by the lack of preseason games than special teams, due to the difficulty in replicating game-like situations during practice. Still, Tomlin wasn’t searching for excuses after Diontae Johnson fumbled a punt and kicker Chris Boswell sent a kickoff out of bounds to give the Giants solid field position.
“We have a myriad of things to clean up, things that make you easy to beat,” Tomlin said. “It’s good to work on those things with a win.”
Benny Snell. The second-year running back took over when James Conner went down with an ankle injury early and turned in a career-best 113 yards rushing on 19 carries. He earned an endorsement from Tomlin that he could be a “bell cow” — a phrase Tomlin used to describe Conner before the season started — should Conner’s injury limit him going forward.
Conner. Out to put to rest concerns over his durability after missing nine games over the past two seasons, Conner was on the sideline early in the second quarter with an ankle issue while Snell made a compelling case to take his job.
Right tackle Zach Banner edged Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job following a spirited battle during training camp. The joy didn’t last. Banner is likely out long term with a right knee injury sustained in the second half. Veteran Stefen Wisniewski is dealing with a pectoral issue, though Tomlin sounded optimistic both Conner and Wisniewski could practice this week. The status of Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro — who sat out against the Giants — remains uncertain.
58 — the number of consecutive games in which the Steelers have had at least one sack, the fifth-longest such streak in NFL history. Denver quarterback Drew Lock, however, can be tough to chase down. Lock has only been sacked five times in his six career starts.
Finding reinforcements along the offensive line with Banner out and the status of DeCastro and Wisniewski unclear. Denver’s defense, however, looked pliable in a season-opening loss to Tennessee.