PITTSBURGH — Emotions were still running high when Mike Tomlin began his postgame press conference on Monday night. Just moments earlier, Ben Roethlisberger delivered an emotional message to his teammates in the locker room after winning what was likely his final game at Heinz Field.
The 26-14 win over the Browns was monumental on several fronts. It kept the Steelers alive in the race to secure a wild-card berth. But all of the talk after the game was about Roethlisberger and how the Steelers were able to help him secure his 92nd and perhaps final victory at Heinz Field.
“It was an emotional night for all of us,” Tomlin said. “We’re just so appreciative of 7, not only his play but his leadership. Just a tough night, but an awesome night.”
Tomlin was the first to inform the media of Roethlisberger’s postgame message to his teammates.
“Just a beautiful thing,” Tomlin said of the moment.
Instead of putting the team on his back on Monday night, Roethlisberger received plenty of help from his teammates in what was the Steelers’ most complete game of the season to date. Najee Harris had easily his best day as a Steeler, with 188 rushing yards that included his game-clinching, 37-yard score with less than a minute left. Pittsburgh’s defense, led by linebacker T.J. Watt’s four sacks, largely had its way with Baker Mayfield and the Browns’ surprisingly pass-happy offense. The Steelers received another clutch outing from Chris Boswell, who made all four of his field goal tries.
“It was such a team performance tonight,” Roethlisberger said. “[Harris is] a heck of a football player. It’s like he ran possessed tonight. Some of the things he did was just special. … To watch the defense go out and do what they did. The special teams. We had guys filling in and playing; J.C. [Hassenauer] playing center. Just everybody stepped up tonight and it just means the world to me.”
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It was clear from the start that Monday night was not going to be an ordinary game. Fans cheered when Roethlisberger ran out for pregame warmups, and erupted when Roethlisberger’s name was announced as he ran out with Pittsburgh’s offensive starters during player introductions. “Let’s Go Ben!” chants reverberated throughout the game and reached a frenzied pitch after he hit Diontae Johnson for the game’s first score.
“The atmosphere out there was crazy,” Harris said. “That was the most amplified and energized Heinz Field has been since I’ve been here.”
Harris said that he and his teammates fed off of the atmosphere created by the fans. It certainly had an impact on Watt, who is now is just one sack away from tying Michael Strahan’s NFL single season record.
“It’s special,” Watt said of the fans’ response to Roethlisberger. “You pour so much into this. So much goes on behind the scenes. The sacrifices. And it’s not just yourself, it’s your family. When people truly take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate it like tonight, I don’t think people truly understand how special it was, not only for him but for us to see how well he was received and treated. Pittsburgh is a really special place, and tonight was a great night to show that.”
The 63,624 fans weren’t the only ones that made sure that they brought their “A” game to Heinz Field. The Steelers elevated their level of play to make sure that their quarterback would win his 26th game in 30 starts against the team that famously passed on him in the 2004 NFL Draft.
“I want to make sure my play held up to how I felt about him,” said Cam Heyward, who, along with Derek Watt, made sure that Roethlisberger was the lone captain that went out for the opening coin toss. “A lot of guys felt the same way. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. Pittsburgh Steeler legend. Ring of Honor guy. He’s going to get every accolade. I feel very fortunate to have played with a lot of Hall of Fame players.”
Like everything else in the Steelers’ 2021 season, Monday’s win was anything but easy. Despite the defense’s dominance, the Steelers held a precarious lead for most of the game. And when they did build a double-digit lead late in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh found itself defending an onside kick lead after Cleveland scored a late touchdown with 1:10 left. But the Steelers ultimately came out on top after Harris put the game away three plays after Minkah Fitzpatrick’s recovery of the onside kick. Ahkello Witherspoon’s late interception of Mayfield allowed Roethlisberger to line up in victory formation.
“I didn’t think I was going back out,” Roethlisberger said. “Anybody in football will tell you, when you’re on offense, that’s the best play in football. To go out there and take a knee probably made it more emotional and made it more real. It wasn’t pretty, but I think that’s been my style, not pretty but finding a way to win. … That’s what it’s always been about for me, winning football games. That’s one more, and it’s very special.”
Roethlisberger had a special moment immediately after the game, as he was embraced his his wife and three children. He briefly met with several Browns players (Mayfield and Myles Garrett among them) before being engulfed by media and camera people. Through the crowd, Roethlisberger waived and embraced the fans for an extended period of time before leaving Heinz Field for perhaps the final time as a player.
“This is home,” Roethlisberger said. “I was born in Ohio, but I live here, and it will always be here. These fans and this place just means so much to me and my family, and always will. I’ve always said that they’re the best fans in all of sports, and I’ll stick by that until the day I die. To see all the signs and the jerseys and the towels and to hear them cheer for me coming out of the tunnel.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever put it into words. I wish I could bottle it and have it forever, but I will in [my heart] and in my mind.”
Inside the locker room, Roethlisberger had one final, emotional, message to deliver on what was an emotional night for everyone who witnessed the end of an era.
“This team is very special,” Roethlisberger said. “In the locker room afterwords, then on the field, just everything. That’s why I love this place. This is home. These are my brothers, and I’m so blessed. Not just these guys, but all the guys that I’ve been blessed to play with over my years.”