With 6:08 left in the second quarter of the Thursday night game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered what looked to be a serious ankle injury when he was caught in a hi-lo situation with two Browns defenders. Roethlisberger rolled his left ankle pretty severely and had to be helped off the field by two Steelers staff members. He was then carted to the locker room and to X-ray, where the news was better than it looked on the field.
"I thought my leg was broken," Roethlisberger said after the game. "It was one of the most painful things I've ever felt."
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told Alex Flanagan of the NFL Network that X-rays to Roethlisberger's left ankle were "negative" and showed no serious injury. The real surprise was to see Roethlisberger come back out for the second half of a 7-3 game led by the Steelers. He operated the offense with a fairly serious limp, but seemed functional to start the drive.
From there, he was more than functional, despite what has since been diagnosed as a high ankle sprain. Roethlisberger stayed in the game for the 14-3 win, throwing for 280 yards and adding a punctuation touchdown pass to receiver Antonio Brown with 2:52 left in the game. The 79-yard play was part of a career-high 151 receiving yards for Brown, who's become the Steelers' most consistent target. Roethlisberger was 9 of 13 for 178 yards after he was hurt.
"I'm glad he scored, because I wouldn't have made it all the way down there if we had to run another play," Roethlisberger said.
The Steelers have won eight of their last nine games, allowing them to keep pace with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. But this game was less about numbers and playoff possibilities — it was more about the will of a quarterback who would not be counted out.
"I don't want to let my guys down," he said. "I was going to give it a go and be out there as best I could."
"We need him," Brown said of Roethlisberger after the game. "The ball don't move without No. 7 ... He exemplifies toughness, an amazing quarterback to play with, he's special. He wouldn't let us down. He came out of the locker room, sucked it up, taped it up, I mean, that guy's a pro. I'm just grateful to play with a quarterback such as him."
Offensive tackle Max Starks was even more inspired to protect his quarterback after Roethlisberger returned. "The way that he got up and they walked him straight back into the tunnel, in my mind I was prepared for him to be done. Ben has come back from almost every single type of injury. He's a warrior. He's a battle-tested guy. To watch him come back and his resilience is just amazing and makes every one of us on the offensive side of the ball fight that much harder."
Defensive end Brett Keisel spoke of the respect given to Roethlisberger by the guys on the other other side of the ball: "He's the toughest guy around. You could see how he was hobbling around out there. We came in here, we didn't see him during halftime. I think everyone was kind of getting ready to go out without him. And then we get out there and he's taking snaps. People want to hate on him, but the guy's one of the toughest competitors in this game."
Finally, Tomlin talked about the decision to put Roethlisberger back in the game.
"The doctors said he was OK to go," Tomlin said. "He wanted to go. I will always give him an opportunity to show what he is capable of. We know what kind of competitor he is. We know his pain tolerance. We know what he's capable of."