By Felix Harari ‘24, Staff Writer
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no strangers to adversity. In recent years, they have lost Antonio Brown and Le’veon Bell (two of the three “Killer Bees”), suffered from the tragic passing of wide receiver coach Daryl Drake, and lost their 37-year-old franchise quarterback, Ben Rothlesberger, to elbow surgery one and a half games into the 2019 season. Somehow, the Steeler organization always finds a way to fight through their difficulties, and this season is no exception. Not only did the team have their bye week taken away from them in week four, forcing them to play 13 straight games, they had to play a game for which their quarterback wasn’t allowed to practice. Rothlesberger sat next to Vance Mcdonald, who tested positive for Covid-19, on the team plane. Rothlesberger was labelled as high risk and placed on the COVID list. Luckily, Rothlesberger tested negative and was taken off the list on November 14th, just a day before the Steelers played the Cincinnati Bengals. He wasn’t able to practice before facing the Bengals, besides for a walk-through on Saturday that was extended, so Rothlesberger could get more comfortable with the playbook.
Rothlesberger said, “My body enjoyed the week off, my mind, from teaching pre-k, did not.” Rothlesberger was tested for the virus every day while his wife and three kids were tested every other day. He said that being in such close contact with a positive case was an extremely strange and nerve-wracking experience. When asked about how he felt when he learned McDonald had tested positive, he said that he wasn’t too worried for himself because he wore a mask the whole time, but he was worried about his kids. Rothlesberger spoke about how he kept his arm loose at home by saying, “I didn’t do anything, I threw about fifty balls on Friday and that was it. I wanted to kind of let it rest. It is that point in the season, when not throwing is a good thing. I did ice it a lot.” That method worked to perfection. Rothlesberger had season highs in passing yards (333 yards) and touchdowns (4) in the 36-7 blowout against the Bengals on November 15th. He took multiple deep shots to wide receivers Chase Claypool and Dionte Johnson, and connected with Johnson on a huge 46 yard completion to help set up the first touchdown of the day.
As a veteran, Rothlesberger takes Wednesdays off and usually doesn’t throw much on Thursday and Friday, so his arm wasn’t affected negatively. He said he missed the mental reps and communication, looking his teammates in the eye and discussing plays with them. He had to watch soundless tapes of practice at home, and couldn’t discuss play calls with his coaches and teammates in real time.
Rothlesberger was asked about how the team was able to handle the COVID situation and simultaneously play so strongly, absolutely demolishing the Bengals. Rothlesbereger said that the team is selfless, and no one cares about individual stats; it’s all about winning week in week out, no matter what. Rothlesbereger shares the wealth and spreads the ball out between at least seven or eight players a game. His receivers are young, talented, and humble. They love to play, they love to win, and no matter who gets the ball, they all celebrate together.
It was amazing how well Rothlesberger played, especially given the COVID scares the team was battling going into the game, but head coach and leading candidate for Coach of the Year Mike Tomlin was not surprised. He explained, “His health was not a factor and so we had very little reservations about his ability to perform once we got him to the stadium.”
Tomlin added, “We just got to be vigilant about number one working our tails off to keep ourselves and everyone else safe, and number two not letting some of the challenges of the pandemic be a factor in terms of the quality of our play. It is something globally that everybody has to deal with and I like the way the group embraced the challenge of it this week.”
The Steelers demonstrated that they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders multiple times during the season, but their biggest statement may have been their 36-10 destruction of the Bengals. Players in all three phases of the game were putting on big performances — offense, defense, and special teams. If the Steelers can keep stacking wins while having to deal with COVID issues, they will leave the rest of the NFL wondering what their full potential is when they are singularly focused on winning without having to worry about COVID adversity.