PITTSBURGH — The referee spotted the ball and Ben Roethlisberger waved his hands, urging his teammates to get to their spots.
No looking at the sideline. No pressing his helmet against his ear. No glancing at the call sheet on his wrist.
Instead, the Steelers’ quarterback looked at the Detroit Lions defense before barking out a play. He took the snap and handed off to Le’Veon Bell for a 12-yard gain.
Bell hopped up and flipped the ball to an official. Seconds later, Roethlisberger was lined up in the shotgun waiting for the snap.
This is what Roethlisberger’s vision of freedom looks like, a vision that could become a fixture of the Pittsburgh offense over the final six weeks of the season.
Empowered by offensive coordinator Todd Haley to speed things up and energize an offense that has sputtered most of the season, Roethlisberger put together 60 of the finest minutes of his career while helping the Steelers (4-6) rally past the Lions 37-27 to keep alive whatever slim chance they have of making a playoff run.
“It definitely facilitated the game,” wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “It allowed us to get the other team off balance. It helps us start fast.”
Roethlisberger passed for 367 yards and four touchdowns, two of them coming on plays he called at the line, including a 20-yard lob to Jerricho Cotchery with 2:35 left that provided the final margin.
It was vintage Roethlisberger, who avoided the mistakes that contributed greatly to Pittsburgh’s early-season struggles. He didn’t throw an interception, was sacked just once in 46 drop backs and for the moment silenced speculation the franchise wants him to take a more cerebral approach to the game in hopes of protecting his body as he heads into the second half of his career.
Roethlisberger is done talking about his future. His teammates, however, have no such problems doing their best to protect him.
“I feel like I’m in one of those Terrell Owens moments, that’s my quarterback,” Cotchery said with a laugh.
Roethlisberger sounded magnanimous when pressed on how much of Pittsburgh’s highest point production since Oct. 9, 2011 was the result of his own input.
“It’s a combination when we come to the sidelines, it’s me calling (those plays) out there,” Roethlisberger said. “On the sidelines I’m talking to all the wide receivers, tight ends and running backs, coach Haley, coach Randy Fichtner, all the coaches. We’re trying to brainstorm and see what is best so they can best prepare me when I am on the field.”
Roethlisberger certainly looked prepared while leading the Steelers to a quick lead. He completed 7 of 8 passes to start the game, twice finding Brown for catch-and-run scores.
Pittsburgh’s 14 first-quarter points nearly matched the team’s 19 total points it had put up in the first quarter all season. Two field goals by Shaun Suisham helped the Steelers survive a second-quarter burst by the Lions that put Detroit ahead 27-20 at halftime.
As effective as it looked, it wasn’t perfect. The first three times Pittsburgh drove inside the Detroit 20, the Steelers had to settle for three points.
That’s hardly a step forward for the 28th-ranked team in red zone efficiency.
Trailing by seven points midway through the third quarter, the Steelers had first-and-goal at the Lions’ 1. Roethlisberger overthrew a wide-open David Paulson on second down and Bell lost two yards on third. Instead of tying the game, Pittsburgh trailed.
“I put it a little too high for him,” Roethlisberger said. “I think he slipped a little. We all did. The conditions were crazy out there. That’s on me. I have to make that play.”
The Steelers earned a reprieve when the Lions couldn’t convert a fake field goal early in the fourth quarter that would have restored the lead to a touchdown. Pittsburgh responded by going 97 yards in 16 plays, eight of them coming out of the no huddle.
After missing twice at the Detroit 1, he floated a pass to fullback Will Johnson that put the Steelers in front to stay. Pittsburgh’s defense followed by producing its third turnover of the day. Rather than play it conservatively, Roethlisberger “dusted off” an old play that freed Cotchery down the left sideline. The throw was perfect and Pittsburgh inched closer to the fringe of postseason picture in the murky and mediocre AFC.