EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – There was one overriding reason Ben Roethlisberger worked so hard to return from a major elbow injury.
Roethlisberger, who missed the final 14 games last season after elbow surgery, threw for three scores and the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Giants 26-16 at an empty and eerie MetLife Stadium on Monday night. He also got all the help he could ask for from his defense and backup running back Bennie Snell.
“I am excited we won the game,” Roethlisberger said. “I told the guys before the game it is not about me individually. The reason I came back is for these guys, this team. It’s a special group of football players, of men, and I am just glad to be a part of it.”
A key part of it, along with several defensive plays and Snell's 113 yards on 19 carries — his first 100-yard performance in his second NFL season.
“We have talked openly about the maturation process and things you can expect from a second-year player,” coach Mike Tomlin said, “and he's showed signs of that from the very beginning of this process. He is a quality player and one that is maturing and emerging, and one who answered the bell when called upon.”
The defense, while not quite on the level of the famed Steel Curtain, was stingy and physical. It held Saquon Barkley to 6 yards on 15 carries, swarming in the backfield nearly all night.
“I have to be better," Barkley said. "I have to be better for the team. We have to get the running game going.”
Three Steelers stars got them their first touchdown. All-Pro linebacker T.J. Watt made a clever interception at the New York 36. Roethlisberger beat a blitz with a perfect throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 10-yard second-quarter score. Chris Boswell's extra point hit the upright, leaving them behind 10-9.
They got the lead with 7 seconds remaining in the half as Roethlisberger connected with James Washington, who dived into the end zone for a 13-yard score. Boswell made the PAT this time, and added a 36-yard field goal early in the final quarter. That came following the night's biggest play.
Even though the Pittsburgh defense broke down as the Giants marched 87 yards on 19 plays in the third quarter, it still came up with a huge stop. Bud Dupree pressured quarterback Daniel Jones as he rolled left from the 4 and deflected his pass. Edge rusher Cam Heyward practically made a fair catch in the end zone for the interception.
“I want to make a play for my team. I saw Bud laying him down,” Heyward said. "I tried to make a good play and float to the ball.
“We got to be an opportunistic defense. We got sacks by guys who don't usually get sacks and interceptions by guys who don’t usually get interceptions.”
Roethlisberger then took Pittsburgh 62 yards for the field goal and a 19-10 lead. He hit Smith-Schuster again for a 10-yard touchdown and a 26-10 lead before New York got a late TD.
Roethlisberger finished 21 of 32 for 229 yards has now thrown for 366 touchdowns, a franchise record, tying Eli Manning for the eighth most in NFL history.
Not unexpectedly, sloppy play was the order of the evening early on. In Joe Judge's debut as coach, the Giants had a dropped pass by Evan Engram and a delay-of-game penalty on fourth-and-1.
The first time a Steeler touched the ball this season was a muff by punt returner Diontae Johnson. Oshane Ximines recovered at the Steelers 3, but New York only managed a 21-yard field goal by Graham Gano.
There were three drops and the muff in the first half of the opening period, and neither team could run the ball successfully.
Not exactly made for prime time — until the beginning of the second quarter and Darius Slayton's post pattern touchdown reception of 41 yards for a 10-3 Giants lead.
Slayton caught a 7-yard TD pass with 1:52 remaining in the game and had six receptions for 102 yards.
Nineteen of the Giants' 48 active players knelt during the national anthem, mostly defensive players. Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson was on a knee with a hand across his heart.
The Steelers stood side by side while a group of players held a white banner with the words “Steelers Against Racism.” Only tight end Eric Ebron raised his arm.
The Steelers remained in their locker room and the Giants stood in an end zone some 25 minutes earlier when the Black anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was played.
Steelers starting running back James Conner left in the second half with an ankle injury. Guard Stefen Wisnewski sustained a pectoral injury one play before right tackle Zach Banner hurt his right knee in the fourth quarter. Banner had beaten out Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting spot after he remade his body and approach, dropping 30 pounds.
Steelers: Host the Broncos on Sunday.
Giants: Visit the Bears on Sunday.
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