When Ben Roethlisberger takes the field Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, he’ll be returning to his roots as a professional.
More than 16 years ago, Roethlisberger’s first regular season action in the NFL happened in Baltimore against one of the best defenses in the NFL. Then just a rookie, Roethlisberger replaced an injured Tommy Maddox in the second half. He later took the starting job for the remainder of the season and, as it turned out, has kept it for more than a decade-and-a-half.
The Steelers lost 30-13 that day in 2004, but it was their only loss of the regular season as Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record, the AFC Championship Game and earned himself AP Offensive Rookie Of The Year in the process.
Since then, every player on both rosters has come and gone. Even Sam Koch, who has played in a Ravens-record 230 consecutive games, was still two years away from joining the team. But Roethlisberger, and the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, has stood the test of time. Sunday will be, including the playoffs, his 27th game at quarterback against the Ravens.
“It surprises me — maybe it’s because of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry — it surprises me that he is left out, I think, of the conversation when people are talking about the ageless wonders like Drew Brees and Tom Brady, because of the success that he’s had,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Thursday.
Roethlisberger has missed a few games here and there, but he’s even played in more total games against the Ravens (26) than times John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin have coached against one another (24).
And the two are set to break a record on Sunday for games played against another head coach.
But it hasn’t always been easy for Roethlisberger, especially against the Ravens. In his career, he's posted a 13-10 regular season record and completed 60.27 percent of his passes with an average of 219 yards, 1.42 touchdowns and one interception per game. All numbers are worse than his total career averages against the rest of the league.
But like the league since 2004, and especially in 2020, Roethlisberger has evolved.
“It’s the best I’ve seen him,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “He’s always been great, but he’s locked in. He’s getting rid of the ball fast, making great reads, getting the ball to his playmakers (and) still throwing the ball well down the field. You have to love what you see on tape when you watch him. He’s a great player — Hall of Fame worthy. He’s a lot better player overall.”
There’s not a better example of his evolution than the Steelers’ previous game against the Titans.
Roethlisberger threw for 268 yards on 32-of-49 passing for two touchdowns and three interceptions. Of his three interceptions, one came at the end of the first half on essentially a Hail Mary play, one was due to a batted pass at the line of scrimmage and the final was on a deflected pass in the end zone.
And how he got to those yards shows a different Roethlisberger and a different Steelers offense.
He threw 35 of his 49 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and completed 28 of them with one touchdown and an interception. Just 14 of his passes were thrown further than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage — and he completed just four of them.
“He’s getting the ball out quicker this year, but he’s still Ben,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “He still can have four or five dudes try to tackle him and he’d shake them off and then go throw the ball 60 yards downfield right on target. So, we know what he’s always been capable of, what he’s doing. He’s just switched it up a little bit, I think, by getting the ball out faster this year — it seems like that at least.”
Through Roethlisberger's career, he's had plenty of help at wide receiver to make him smile and give Ravens' defensive coordinators headaches. He started his career with Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El and later threw to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
He still has Smith-Schuster, but they’ve added Diontae Johnson, James Washington and rookie Chase Claypool to the mix. Add in tight end Eric Ebron, and five Steelers have at least 25 targets this season. Six players on the team have 15 or more receptions, too.
“(Roethlisberger) does a really good job of finding the open receiver in terms of what coverage you’re playing and what route they’re running,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s been around a long time. He’s run that offense for many years, and it’s his offense. I call it the ‘Big Ben offense.’ It’s built for him, around him, and I’m sure he has a big hand in building it and organizing it as well.”
Roethlisberger’s propensity to get the ball out quickly to his talented group of receivers has made gameplanning against the Steelers’ offense particularly difficult.
The Ravens recently added Yannick Ngakoue to the team’s pass rush, a group that already has talented rushers like Campbell and Matthew Judon in Martindale’s blitz-heavy scheme.
But unless they’re able to blow through the line of scrimmage and get to Roethlisberger in just over two seconds, it won’t make much difference.
Meaning, more emphasis will be put on the Ravens’ secondary to shut down throws near the line of scrimmage and first down marker to allow the defensive front to get after Roethlisberger.
“Just throughout my 10 years and knowing as long as you keep playing and stay after your opponent, those quick passes are going to get taken away as the game goes,” outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “So, just keep pressing, just keep trying to find a way to beat your one-one-ones, find a way to get to the quarterback and most definitely stop the run, because it’s all part of the run game.”
The gameplan isn’t as easily executed as it is said, though.
“I have a couple sacks against ‘Big Ben,’ but they don’t call him ‘Big Ben’ for no reason,” Judon said. “So, he’s a fierce competitor. He doesn’t like to take hits — no quarterback does. But he’s just a tough tackle because when you get him in your grasp, he still throws the ball. He still finds a way to get the ball out and get it to his playmakers.”
In the grand scheme of the rivalry, and Roethlisberger’s career, Sunday won’t be dissimilar to Ravens-Steelers games of the past with No. 7 at quarterback.
The Ravens will have to defend a talented group of receivers with a good running game behind it. Roethlisberger can sling it around the yard for an entire afternoon and lead the Steelers to a win. And when, and if, the Ravens are able to get a hand on him, he certainly won’t be easy to bring down.
Sunday’s matchup, like it has for so many years, fixes to be a hard-nosed matchup between two bitter rivals. And once he takes the first snap, Roethlisberger will have been the Steelers' starting quarterback for more than half of the soon-to-be 53 all-time games between Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
He’s played so long that Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, just 23-years-old, remembers watching Roethlisberger play against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl back in 2006. Jackson had just turned 9 years old when that game was played.
So Sunday’s matchup might look a little different on paper, or even on the field. But in a lot of ways, it’s the same as it ever was.
“Basically seeing the same guy,” McPhee said. “He gets the ball out a tad faster, but he’s still ‘Big Ben.’ He’s still standing in the pocket. He still can take hits. He still can push defenders off of him and make great throws and be that Hall of Fame quarterback that he’s going to be in the future. I think he’s still ‘Big Ben.’”