While a nationwide - perhaps worldwide - audience joined the fans inside Heinz Field on Thursday night, something spectacular was happening beyond the glitz and shine of television cameras, the chatter of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on the broadcast. Pittsburgh Steelers veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was gearing up for one heckuva game. Looking relaxed, unconcerned, he stood on the sidelines and watched the Carolina Panthers offense draw first blood. And then Big Ben put on his helmet, took the field and put together a perfect game. It isn't the first time the tough-as-nails quarterback has done so, but in the last five games - all wins - for the Steelers, Roethlisberger has put together outstanding performances each outing, and it's an exciting thing to see as Pittsburgh exits the tenth week of the 2018 NFL regular season.
Against the Panthers, Roethlisberger posted a perfect passer rating of 158.3 after completing 22-of-25 passes for 328 yards with five touchdowns and zero interceptions. Spreading the ball around, Roethlisberger threw one touchdown pass to five different players: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown, Vance McDonald, Jesse James, and Jaylen Samuels. It was the fourth time Roethlisberger has posted a perfect passer rating (regular season) in his career.
Even though the last "perfect" passing game came on December 20, 2007 (at St. Louis Rams), Roethlisberger has looked re-energized beginning Week 5 against the Atlanta Falcons - the week that Pittsburgh began its current streak of one win after another. Roethlisberger hit his 20th passing touchdown for the tenth time in his career (with at least 20 scoring tosses) on Thursday night and his eighth consecutive. For the fifteenth time in his career, Roethlisberger registered at least four touchdown passes in a game. He has thrown for a minimum of 250 yards and a touchdown in each of the Steelers' first nine games this season (a franchise record). That's consecutive games, folks. Thursday night marked his 59th 300-yard passing game during the regular season in his career (328 yards total).
Where Big Ben has looked different, in a way, has been in how he has settled in and appeared to have more trust in his surrounding cast. While he's been quietly feeding the beast that is James Conner in the ground game, Roethlisberger has also been keeping Brown and Smith-Schuster close while giving nods to his tight ends, slot receivers, and different personnel out of the offensive backfield. When he's seen opportunities, he's used his feet and a slimmer, yet more aged, body to gain yards. He's taken big hits and gotten back on his feet (except when he couldn't catch his breath, like during the game against the Ravens in Week 9).
There are still NFL fans who want to discount Roethlisberger's worth based on allegations from his past. When Eric Reid was ejected from the game Thursday night for hitting Roethlisberger as the quarterback slid, feet first, Panthers fans were quick to respond to a FOX Sports "Tweet" that he didn't deserve the penalty flag being thrown, that he's babied by the league and more. Some suggested that he deserved the hit - and anything else - because they see him as something other than a human being who happens to play quarterback in the NFL.
You can tell by how quick his offensive linemen, especially David DeCastro, came to his defense following the hit just how important Roethlisberger is to the success of this 2018 Steelers team, however. His teammates want him to succeed, and he wants them to see success in return. He's not a superhero. He's a guy who leads his team, sometimes taking the blame for a loss on himself when it is a team sport, sometimes showing frustration over not being on the same page with his guys. He's also the winningest quarterback in Steelers history and increased that number to 141 wins as the starter on Thursday.
"Elite" is a word I don't like to throw around. My main reason is that the definition of elite status is different for nearly everyone. Some want to see perfect stats. Others want a guy that can win every game and never lose. After helping his team to a 52-point win, Roethlisberger became just the seventh quarterback in NFL history with at least 350 touchdown passes, surpassing Eli Manning (347) for the most scoring passes thrown; behind Philip Rivers (361). For the 86th time in his career (regular season as the starter), Roethlisberger registered a passer rating over 100.0, and in those games, the Steelers sport a record of 76 wins to ten losses. Just ten! Roethlisberger became the fifth quarterback in NFL history to register at least five touchdown passes in six career games (Dan Marino: 6, Tom Brady: 6, Peyton Manning: 9, Drew Brees 10).
If he's not yet "elite", he's doing a pretty good imitation of it in my opinion. The last five games have shown a Pittsburgh team that enjoys the feeling a win offers and players who support one another. The Steelers offense was truly firing on all cylinders on Thursday night, and the spark that got that engine warm and speeding up and down the field was one man: Ben Roethlisberger.