PITTSBURGH — Minutes before what was likely his final game at Heinz Field kicked off, Ben Roethlisberger faced the Cleveland Browns game captains by himself at the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ midfield logo Monday night.
Fellow Steelers captains Cam Heyward and Derek Watt would normally flank the quarterback on the walk to the coin toss, but the pair stopped short, letting their quarterback go ahead without them.
When Roethlisberger realized what was happening, he turned around and motioned for them to come with him, but the pair hung back. Roethlisberger continued, until he stood by himself at midfield for potentially the final coin toss at Heinz Field of his 18-year career.
It was the kind of understated gesture fitting of the veteran, who said earlier he preferred winning Monday night to pomp and circumstance in his probable farewell to his home field.
The Steelers then delivered Roethlisberger’s greatest wish with a 26-14 win against the Browns.
“I’m just so thankful for these fans and this place. There’s no place like it,” Roethlisberger said with tears in his eyes during a postgame interview with ESPN.
The Steelers’ offensive plan revolved around Roethlisberger’s arm, and the quarterback attempted 34 passes in the first half — the second most in a first half in his NFL career, including playoffs. Yet, the 39-year-old threw for just 96 first-half yards, becoming the first player in the past 40 years with at least 30 pass attempts and less than 100 yards at halftime.
He finished his final game completing 24 for 46 attempts for 123 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
“It’s funny because probably not the way you wanted it other than the win,” Roethlisberger said. “And that’s all that really matters. And that’s been the story of my career: Not always pretty but we find a way.”
In the first half, the Steelers dropped back to pass on 35 of 49 offensive plays for a designed pass percentage of 71%. Until Monday night, they hadn’t won a game this season when at least 70% of their plays were designed passes. The Steelers are now 2-7 this season when Roethlisberger has at least 40 pass attempts. The only other win came against Seattle in Week 6.
As he has done throughout the season, Roethlisberger showed flashes of his vintage play, like a pump fake on a pass that found Ray-Ray McCloud for a 9-yard gain over the middle in the red zone. He led a second-quarter scoring drive capped by a 5-yard touchdown throw to Diontae Johnson, ending the Steelers’ five-game streak of scoreless first halves.
But he also had an interception — his 210th career interception, tying Terry Bradshaw for most in franchise history — and was sacked two times. His 2.82 yards per attempt in the first half was also the lowest by any quarterback in a first half this season. He averaged 1.4 air yards per completion in the first half.
But as much as the Steelers focused on Roethlisberger’s arm in his farewell game, running back Najee Harris showed a glimpse of the future with a career-high 188 yards on 28 carries, setting a new franchise record for rookie rushing yards with 1,172.
It also marked his third 100-yard rushing game, second most by a Steelers rookie only to Franco Harris’ seven in 1972. He capped off the game with a 37-yard touchdown run — his longest rush of the season — with less than a minute to play. He also had 135 rush yards after contact Monday night, most of any player this season and most by a Steeler in the past 10 seasons.
T.J. Watt, another significant piece of the Steelers’ future, was also instrumental Monday night with a career-high four sacks, pushing him to 21.5 sacks this season as he nears Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22 set in 2001. As a team, the Steelers sacked Mayfield nine times Monday night.
Roethlisberger kept his usual pregame routine Monday night, not taking the field for final warm-ups until 46 minutes remained before kickoff. He embraced Steelers minority owner Thomas Tull, who took out a full, front-page advertisement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday to thank the quarterback, after he ran out. Tull also wore a black Roethlisberger jersey.
Early in pregame warm-ups, Steelers owner and president Art Rooney II thanked Roethlisberger for a “great 18 years,” on the video board, but outside of that, the Steelers went light on tributes to the quarterback. During the fourth-quarter “Renegade,” there weren’t any extra Roethlisberger moments added to the highlight reel.
But as expected, Roethlisberger was the last player individually announced, and he sprinted out of the tunnel to a loud ovation from the 63,624 fans at Heinz Field, who broke out into a “Let’s go Ben” chant after his introduction. The chant rang through the stadium throughout the game as the fans, who came armed with farewell signs, bid goodbye to their franchise quarterback.
With a minute left and Roethlisberger on the sideline, the crowd chanted, “Thank you, Ben” as the quarterback hugged teammates on the sideline. Then, Tre Norwood intercepted Mayfield with 10 seconds left, allowing Roethlisberger to take the field in victory formation at Heinz Field one more time.