PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger's absence from Sunday's game against Detroit could be a tonic for what ails the winless Lions.
The Steelers announced Saturday that Roethlisberger had been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and would miss the game. Mason Rudolph is expected to start at quarterback.
The Steelers (5-3) have won four straight to recover from a 1-3 start and find themselves in the mix in the unpredictable AFC North. That doesn't mean their longtime quarterback, who spoke earlier in the week thinks his team is any good. Or at least good enough to meet the standard he has played a pivotal part in helping set during his 18 years on the job.
“We’ve got a winning record, but if you ask most of the guys, I think, in this building would tell you we’ve got a long way to go,” Roethlisberger said.
He's not lying. The Steelers hardly looked dominant during last week's 29-27 escape against Chicago, a game in which a 10-point lead with 12 minutes to go evaporated, forcing Roethlisberger to orchestrate the 38th fourth-quarter comeback of his career.
The ease with which Pittsburgh went 52 yards in 76 seconds to set up Chris Boswell's winning field goal should give an offense featuring four rookies a boost. Yet the Steelers would also like to stop having things get so tight in the end. All four victories during their surge have come by eight points or less.
“Sometimes in college, you’re up by 21 (and) it’s hard to catch up a lot,” Roethlisberger said. “In this league, that’s not always the case. Anytime you win a game, it’s great, and if you can pull little lessons from it, that’s even better.”
The lessons have been piling for Detroit (0-8). Close games. Blowouts. The Lions have found a variety of ways to lose during the first two months of rookie head coach Dan Campbell's tenure. Following a week off, the Lions have to travel to a place where the franchise hasn't won since 1955.
“Look, we’ve got our hands full, but it’s why you play the game," Campbell said. “We’re not going out there to just get punched in the face either, but we have to know what we’re getting ready to walk into, which I think we’re all very aware of.”
While the game looked like a breather — comparatively speaking — to the minefield that awaits the Steelers over the second half of the season, they're well aware they haven't played well enough to overlook anyone. And now they are without their starting quarterback.
“We do understand that they’re an 0-8 football team that’s faced a lot of adversity, but this is the National Football League,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “There are no FCS games, there are no Group of Five games, there are no homecomings. Each and every week, you’re up against it.”
Detroit is determined to throw deep more, even if Jared Goff has to force the issue and throw to covered receivers.
Rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown is expected to play an increased role, lining up as an outside receiver along with playing in the slot as he did the first half of the season.
“I’m ready for it,” the former USC standout said. “Dan (Campbell) said we’re going to be more aggressive taking those shots.”
St. Brown has 27 catches for 250 yards. His father, John Brown, is a two-time Mr. Universe winner.
PAT ON THE BACK
Running back Najee Harris isn't the only rookie making an immediate impact on Pittsburgh's offense. Tight end Pat Freiermuth has quickly become one of Roethlisberger's favorite targets, particularly near the goal line. Rudolph likely will look for him inside the opponent's 20, too.
The 6-foot-5 Freiermuth has three touchdowns in his last two games and all four of his scores this season have come from 10 yards or less. Not bad for a player Roethlisberger was unfamiliar with when the Steelers selected Freiermuth in the second round in April.
“I was like, 'I don't know who that is,'” said Roethlisberger, who was on a date with his wife Ashley the night Freiermuth was drafted.
A text from former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator and current Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians gave Roethlisberger immediate peace of mind.
“(The text said) 'He’s the closest thing to Heath Miller I’ve ever seen. You’ll love this kid,'" Roethlisberger said. “That was enough for me.”
The Lions are among the NFL’s worst teams in the red zone, on both sides of the ball, and defensive end Trey Flowers hopes the team can force teams to attempt to score through the air.
“We need to make it harder on them and not let them take the high-percentage play and get them to throw the ball more and maybe we can get that percentage down,” Flowers said.
HE'S THE BOZ
A week after going into the concussion protocol following a fake field goal attempt that went awry, Boswell became the first kicker in NFL history to make two 50-plus yard field goals, drill a winning kick and recover a fumble in the same game.
Boswell's excellence is one of the reasons the Steelers have been able to survive close calls. He has been particularly effective at notoriously tricky Heinz Field, making 91% (89 of 98) of his field-goal attempts at the stadium tucked against the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.
“A kick is a kick,” Boswell said. “There’s going to be wind in every stadium we play unless it’s indoors, obviously, and you just have to adjust and make a kick. No one really cares about wind at that point.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed.
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