Ben Roethlisberger has best game of season for undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers after week of no practice

UniqueThis 31 Nov 16
7:56 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger might never practice again.

OK, that's unlikely, but Roethlisberger proved Sunday that he didn't need a week of practice when he put together his best game of the season in a 36-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals to preserve the Pittsburgh Steelers' undefeated record.

"Really just felt nice and rested coming into today," Roethlisberger said. "I tried to talk Coach into seeing if I could take next week off, too."

Unable to be at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Roethlisberger spent five days in isolation after being labeled as a "high-risk close contact" of tight end Vance McDonald, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week. Because he never tested positive or developed symptoms, Roethlisberger was removed from the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday in time for an extended walk-through with the team.

That was all he needed.

The veteran quarterback completed 27 of 46 attempts for a season-high 333 yards and four touchdowns, also a season high. With the four touchdowns, he set a franchise record with 124 multi-touchdown games, good for eighth in NFL history.

"I threw about 50 balls on Friday, and that was it," Roethlisberger said of his preparation. "I wanted to kind of let it rest. ... I iced it a lot."

It was Roethlisberger's first game throwing for four touchdowns since Week 10, 2018, against the Carolina Panthers, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He hasn't thrown four touchdown passes against an AFC North opponent since he had six against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9 of the 2014 season.

Roethlisberger went into Sunday's game averaging 241 passing yards per game, a mark he eclipsed in the first half, when he completed 17 of 27 attempts for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

By the fourth quarter, the game turned into the Steelers' first blowout since beating the Cleveland Browns 38-7 in Week 6, but it took a few drives for Roethlisberger and the offense to get in sync. The Steelers alternated punts and field goals on the first four drives before scoring a touchdown on their fifth possession, a one-minute drive on which Roethlisberger connected on three straight passes, beginning with a 46-yard deep ball to Diontae Johnson. The ball traveled 35 yards in the air, Roethlisberger's second longest this season. The only ball that traveled farther was an 84-yard toss to Chase Claypool in Week 2 that went 36 yards in the air.

"When I let it go, I didn't really know where it was going to end up because the wind was blowing so much," Roethlisberger said of the pass to Johnson. "It was just one of those ones where you put air on it, and Diontae did the rest of the work. He ran underneath of it and made a great play. All around, kind of everyone had to contribute to plays like that."

The pair capped the drive two plays later with a 12-yard touchdown pass to take a 12-0 lead late in the first quarter. Johnson's connection with Roethlisberger was strong Sunday, as the second-year receiver also had his best game of the season, with 116 yards -- his first 100-yard game of the season -- and the TD.

"That was the spark that got us going deep down the field like that," Johnson said of his long reception. "Get us into good field position and wind up in the end zone. That gave us the lead that we needed and just kept going on adding to it the rest of the game."

With passes such as the 46-yarder to Johnson, Roethlisberger showed that he was comfortable attempting deep balls Sunday. He averaged 7.5 air yards per pass in the first half, nearly a yard higher than his season average mark of 6.84, per ESPN Stats & Information.

With winds of 21 mph, pushing the ball down the field with deep passes wasn't necessarily in the Steelers' game plan. But as the game progressed and the Bengals went down another cornerback, leaving them with three, Roethlisberger let it rip more than he has all season.

"It kind of became the game plan, even though we had some elements and things we were dealing with, stuff like that," Roethlisberger said. "Just looks that they started giving us kind of dictated that we were going to have to start doing that -- in-game adjustments."

The Steelers scored twice more before halftime, adding a touchdown on an 8-yard strike from Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster on a drive aided by back-to-back costly Bengals penalties. Kicker Chris Boswell added three more points with his third field goal of the half just before the break to give the Steelers a 22-7 advantage.

To build the lead in the first half, the Steelers followed the script that has helped them in second-half comebacks the past two weeks.

With the run game stalling, the Steelers went to an empty set on 32% of dropbacks, per ESPN Stats & Information research, double the amount used in the first half against the Ravens and Dallas Cowboys. Roethlisberger was productive in those first-half sets, completing six of nine passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns.

Roethlisberger has 11 touchdowns out of empty sets this season, a mark that leads the NFL by a wide margin.

"When we're in those sets, a lot of times, a lot falls on the line, too, because there's not a lot of protection," he said. "You don't have tight ends blocking. You don't have a back in there helping. So it's five guys on whoever's rushing.

"You know, we're putting up good numbers when we're in those personnel groups, but really it starts up front with those guys giving me time to then get the ball to the play makers and let them make their plays."

With the receiver-heavy sets, the Steelers had another week with minimal gains on the ground. James Conner had 13 carries for 36 yards, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry.

"At the end of the day, it's about the balance between running the ball and throwing the ball," Smith-Schuster said. "In some games, running the ball is more effective than throwing the ball. I think today, throwing the ball was more effective than running the ball."

With a significant lead, Roethlisberger's output slowed a bit in the second half. He completed eight of 16 attempts for 77 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter and added another touchdown throw in the fourth -- both to Claypool (four catches, 56 yards, two TDs) -- before coming out for Mason Rudolph.

Coach Mike Tomlin was never worried about his veteran quarterback playing without a week of practice -- with good reason. After 17 years in the NFL, Roethlisberger is more than capable of playing in a game without a week of going through the motions. He has done it before, having thrown for nearly 400 yards against the Cleveland Browns in 2015 after not practicing all week because of a foot injury.

"There was less anxiety, in terms of dealing with him in these circumstances, maybe than some of the other circumstances he and I have been in in the past, where his health was a factor in terms of availability," Tomlin said of Roethlisberger's game Sunday. "His health was not a factor, so we had very little reservations about his ability to perform once we got him to the stadium."

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