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Steelers' Mike Tomlin had all right answers for Dolphins, except at end involving Big Ben

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PITTSBURGH – At the end of a long awaited day of playoff health and happiness, Ben Roethlisberger entered his post-victory news conference wearing a walking boot on his right foot.

The Steelers’ franchise quarterback insisted he’ll be fine for the next round, in Kansas City on Sunday. “We don’t know anything yet, but we’ll find out soon enough,” Roethlisberger said. “You’re always worried about being hurt, but I’ll be out there next week.”

Always worried and maybe not worried enough. Whatever is ailing Roethlisberger, even if it’s minor, it happened at the end of the lopsided 30-12 win over Miami – when by all rights he should not have been in the game and should not have been throwing a pass. Roethlisberger was tackled by Cameron Wake on his final throw, and the Miami defender landed partially on the quarterback’s right ankle.

Ben Roethlisberger sported a boot after his Steelers defeated the Dolphins on Sunday. (AP)
Ben Roethlisberger sported a boot after his Steelers defeated the Dolphins on Sunday. (AP)

Roethlisberger said he wasn’t surprised he was kept in the game that long, and he sure didn’t seem bothered by the decision. But believe this: Steelers fans will be intensely bothered if Roethlisberger is anything less than 100 percent against one of the best pass rushes in the NFL.

Add this to the usual pressure on head coach Mike Tomlin, who might be the most scrutinized coach in the league. He was slammed just last month by Steelers legend Terry Bradshaw for being a “great cheerleader guy.” On Sunday, Tomlin stood in the hallway from the frigid field to the locker room and greeted every single player after the win with a handshake or a hug or a comment like, “Way to fight!” Offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva ran up the stairs toward his coach and said, “Hey! Cheerleader!” Tomlin laughed and growled back, “You know it!”

“He’s one of the best communicators I’ve been around in my entire life,” Villanueva said moments later. “He’s the coach who’s been the most savvy and intelligent. I can talk to you for 40 minutes about how to get off the ball and he will say the same thing in one sentence – one that you’ll remember.”

The Steelers raved about Sunday’s game plan. With Le’Veon Bell healthy and active with Antonio Brown for the first time in the postseason, there was an expectation Pittsburgh would ride the running game all afternoon. Instead, Roethlisberger came out throwing and it proved devastating. Brown caught two first-quarter touchdown throws – one for 50 yards and one for 62 – and that basically checkmated the frozen Fins. After that, Bell noticed the Dolphins safeties were deep and thought, “OK, A.B. scared ’em.”

He went on to rush for a Steelers postseason-record 167 yards and two touchdowns. Quick throws and almost a hurry-up offense had quickly morphed into smash-mouth football. It was perfect scheming from the cheerleader and his staff.

“That’s what really got them backed up a little bit,” Bell said of the opening two series, “because, ‘We can’t be letting Brown run up and down the field on us.’ So that opened things up for us.”

The greatest mystery about the Steelers – and Tomlin – is how good they would have been if fully healthy over the past few years. Bell missed the last two playoff runs with knee injuries, and Brown was out of last year’s divisional round loss to the Denver Broncos because of a concussion. Roethlisberger is always in the injury purgatory between hobbled and hurt, including this season after going out in a loss at Miami and then returning. Would Pittsburgh have made it past New England and Denver with the three B’s (Ben, Brown and Bell)? We won’t ever know, but we could get a clue this month.

A full array has given Tomlin plenty of options and it has given the team plenty of momentum. The Steelers have not lost since Nov. 13 here against Dallas, and that was a game they probably should have won.

Antonio Brown (L) and Le'Veon Bell put on quite a show on Sunday. (Getty Images)
Antonio Brown (L) and Le’Veon Bell put on quite a show on Sunday. (Getty Images)

That was the end of a four-game losing streak, which players say has actually helped. There were concerns at the time about discipline and accountability, which have seemingly waned or vanished. “We’ve been humbled,” said offensive lineman David DeCastro. The locker room now, he believes, has “tons of confidence.”

That’s with good reason; a combination of offensive weapons like Bell and Brown are something the Patriots and Chiefs do not have. Of course there is Tom Brady to be reckoned with even if Pittsburgh gets past the Chiefs and New England prevails against Houston, but any defense would struggle against the full Steelers attack. Pittsburgh can confuse with pre-snap looks, can move fast, can rely on play-action, or simply go with a jumbo set and blast an opponent. This is part of Bell’s mastery, as he is able to take the ball and wait for what seems like an hour before making his move. DeCastro says he “subconsciously” holds his blocks longer knowing Bell will take an extra beat or three. It even causes frustration for Steelers defenders in practice.

“We try to get to him before he gets moving,” says linebacker Bud Dupree. “It’s hard. He’s so patient – you never know what to do. You think you’ve tipped to him and you’re not. He’s setting you up. That’s how he wants you to think.”

Bell isn’t shy about it.

“When I have the ball,” he said, “I control the tempo.”

The same goes for Roethlisberger, who is known for holding the ball as long as possible but got rid of it quickly on the early drives Sunday. That neutralized Ndamukong Suh, Wake and the rest of the Dolphins.

So it could be fast or slow. It’s Steelers subterfuge and it worked perfectly against the undermanned Dolphins.

Next week will be much tougher, though: on the road against a ferocious Chiefs defense. If everyone is healthy, the Steelers might get a chance to go up against New England in the matchup they’ve been revving for since Bell came aboard in 2013.

If not, there will be more questions about what should have been – and surely more grumbles about the so-called cheerleader.