It’s all about the wins. And often, that means it’s all about the superstars. Make no mistake, Le’Veon Bell was great last night. So was Antonio Brown. Ben Roethlisberger…ok, scratch that last one. Roethlisberger ended great, at least.
But it’s a 46 man roster on gameday. And a lot of guys you wouldn’t think about came up huge.
It started with Xavier Grimble. He’s been up and down throughout the season. An impact early, making a diving touchdown snag in Week 2. But injuries and the health of Ladarius Green phased Grimble out of the lineup, taking away his hat on several of the last Sundays.
Just as Grimble got back involved with the team a week ago, Green went down. It propped Grimble into a more prominent role this week and he took advantage, holding onto a 20 yard touchdown passes despite taking a vicious hit from the deep safety to snag the Steelers first points of the game.
Then there’s Demarcus Ayers. Welcome to the NFL with an introduction to your fiercest rival in the biggest game of the season. But Ayers responded, playing hard and physical from his first snap, and cashed in by drawing a pass interference call to set up a Steelers’ score. As Roethlisberger pointed out, a play pretty similar to what a then-unknown Antonio Brown did in the 2010 season.
“It reminded me a little bit of AB,” said Roethlisberger. “His first opportunity was against the Ravens. On the same sideline, a go ball. I told him, ‘hey, I’m calling this play, just run.’ He ran by the guy and got, I think he would’ve made the play if he didn’t get interfered with. Just really happy with the way that he played.”
Roethlisberger said there was “never a second guess” between he and the rookie receiver, including on Ayers’ lone catch of the day on Pittsburgh’s final drive. A footnote in the game, sure, but a secured catch and the awareness to get out of bounds.
There was Cobi Hamilton, who caught just one pass today, but became the third string kick returner. It might not look like much but there is a high degree of trust in a first year player in this offense and someone who barely played in the league before 2016. Certainly never in a game like this. By that measurement, he did well.
Eli Rogers is more of a “name” but someone just beginning to realize his potential. It was his most complete game today, making sensational catches, getting big plays off YAC, and hey, just being a reliable, constant face among a sea of rotation.
The defensive line asked a lot out of young faces. I wouldn’t say they played as well as those names on offense, though I’m itching to take a closer look, but they embraced a similar challenge. Johnny Maxey saw a noticeable amount of playing time, subbing in for a clearly-hobbled Ricardo Mathews, who deserves credit for gutting things out when the team needed him.
Like Ayers, the circumstances were larger than what any team would like to demand from a player, First game, the ultimate rivalry, the AFC North title on the line. At some level, even understanding the play wasn’t great, you have to respect that.
Mike Tomlin said as much following the game.
“We had some guys who hadn’t played NFL football,” he told reporters following the win.”Tonight was their first game. Guys like Demarcus Ayers and Maxey, on the defensive line due to unavailability of others due to injury. I tip my cap to those guys. It’s tough enough playing in your first NFL game but to step in an environment like that and be positive contributors as both of those guys were, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that.”
It will be the Killer B’s – Ben, Bell, Brown – who will captain any ship to the Super Bowl. But there will be a large supporting cast who will have to – on a smaller scale and not directly under the microscope – play just as well.