Forget social media drama, 'Gold Standard' Patriots have it all over Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

Mike Petraglia
January 18, 2017 - 7:48 pm

Will Ben Roethlisberger be down and out Sunday night in Foxboro? (Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO - Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin know the odds are stacked against them this Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

And it's not because of some inane social media voyeurism provided by their star wide receiver.

When you listen to the quarterback and head coach of the Steelers as we had the chance to on Wednesday in their conference calls with reporters around a speaker in the Patriots media work room, one unmistakeable impression comes through.

The Steelers need to play mistake-free football to have any chance of pulling the upset against the superior Patriots Sunday.

And as much as Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback with a fearless and aggressive approach, he's also a quarterback completely capable of throwing the game away.

He nearly did it on Sunday night in Kansas City. With the Steelers leading 9-7, Ryan Shazier picked off Alex Smith. The Steelers, behind a 100-yard effort in the first half from Le'Veon Bell, marched right down the field to the Kansas City 5. With Bell set off to the right on first and goal, the play was set up for Bell to get the ball and do what he always does - wait for a second or two then pick a gap and head toward the end zone.

Roethelisberger thought he had a better idea. He audibled to a backside slant pass to Antonio Brown in the end zone. One problem. Linebacker Frank Zombo leaped in the air and defensive back Eric Berry came down with the ball in the end zone for an interception.

The Steelers didn't convert a single red zone chance - and they had four - into a touchdown. If that happens Sunday, the Patriots will win by 30 - and that's not Twitter hyperbole.

"We moved the ball well but obviously when you get in the red zone, you've got to score points, score touchdowns. I give them [the Chiefs] a lot of credit on defense," Roethlisberger said. "They really buckled down and stopped us. We just didn't execute. It could be a small thing here, small thing there. We didn't execute and, you know what, it's something we watch and we learn from. Throughout this year, we were one of the best red zone teams. So hopefully, this was just the anomaly."

Now the test gets that much harder for the Steelers' gun-slinging quarterback. And he knows it.

"You'll get different looks. You never know what you're going to get," Roethlisberger said of the Patriots defense. "You could prepare all you want. You can watch all the film you want. But traditionally, you're going to get something, one, two, three or four different things new that you've never seen before. When you're going against the Patriots, you have to understand, they out-coach you, they out-play you. You have to be ready for in-game adjustments.

"Their preparation, I'm sure, like no one else in the world. To be able to prepare for them is one thing but you have to be able to make those in-game adjustments and you have to be able to do it on the sidelines and coaches have to be communicating with players with what you see. And even if you make the adjustment, it doesn't mean you're going to get it right the next time."

Tomlin is hoping that Le'Veon Bell might take some of the burden off Roethlisberger Sunday night so he doesn't have to throw it all around Gillette Stadium.

"I think discipline is an element of their play, regardless of opponent or runner," Tomlin said. "They do a great job of setting the edges, of gap integrity, of reducing the amount of grass they have to defend, both vertically and horizontally. They're a very fundamentally sound group and I think it's been an asset to them." 

When you get past all the ridiculous hype of the first three days of this week, all of the crap that has nothing to do with football, Sunday is going to come down to whether Roethlisberger can keep from being his own worst enemy at the worst time.

Remember the 2004 AFC Championship in Pittsburgh? Roethlisberger certainly does. He was a rookie quarterback who engineered a 15-1 regular season and beat the Jets in overtime to get within one step of the Super Bowl. Then he met Bill Belichick's defense. He was 14-of-24 for 226 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, including an 87-yard pick-6 by Rodney Harrison that put the Patriots up, 24-3, before the half. The Patriots won, 41-27, and went on to beat Philadelphia for their third Super Bowl title in four years.

What does Roethlisberger take from that experience at the same level 12 years ago?

"Just how good they are [and] how better prepared they were than me and better of a football team, better prepared to play that AFC Championship game," Roethlisberger told me. "They got the better of me. That's why I respect them. I respect that organization, their preparation, their coach, their players. That's why this is an awesome honor to be able to go up to their place and play in the championship game." 

His coach remembers the last time he visited Gillette Stadium. That was the night a football broadcast and not his coaching staff was heard in the headsets. It was Sept. 10, 2015 and the Super Bowl XLIX banner was raised. The Patriots won, 28-21.

"I never delve into the cumulative history and things of that nature," Tomlin said Wednesday when asked. "I just try to prepare for this opportunity. What's happened in the past has happened in the past and really has no bearing on what's going to happen moving forward. We're just trying to take the time we have now for this opportunity with this group. Our group is different than it was the last time we were in there and I'm sure they'd say the same thing about their group."

Tom Brady is 4-0 lifetime against the Steelers at Gillette Stadium. He's 9-2 overall as a starter against the black and gold. By comparison, Big Ben is 3-8 overall, including 1-3 at Gillette, with his only win coming in 2008 against Matt Cassel, 33-10. Roethlisberger has never beat Brady in Foxboro in three tries.

Roethlisberger was asked what is about the Patriots that brings out such raw emotion in the Steelers, as was on display Sunday night, courtesy Antonio Brown.

"They're the gold standard," Roethlisberger said, in his most respectful tone. "They're the best. They're awesome. And I think a lot of teams try to look at their blueprint and their recipe for success and try and do what they do because they've been so successful."

Isn't he the least bit resentful that he hasn't had the better of Brady.

"Nope," he answered. "Not at all."

If the Patriots accomplish the expected Sunday night and make a record ninth trip to the Super Bowl, Roethlisberger might consider changing his response.