As he lay flat on the Heinz Field grass Dec. 28, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger knew something seemed wrong. It wasn't just the dazed sensation he felt moments after he was leveled by two Cleveland linebackers and his head hit the turf hard late in the first half. What he didn't feel concerned him far more. "It was scary, especially when you can't feel your arms," he told reporters in Pittsburgh this week. "They pricked me with a pin and I couldn't feel it. When you see the doctor look at the trainer with that kind of look, it scares you a little bit."
He was carried from the field on a stretcher, and fortunately the numbness subsided quickly. The diagnosis: Roethlisberger had sustained a mild concussion, a major relief under the circumstances. Though his headaches lasted until this week, he passed all the mandatory tests, three during the Steelers' bye week and the final one Monday.
"They show you a bunch of words and you have to remember what they were," he said. "You also have to remember shapes and colors and things like that."
Now, Roethlisberger can just focus on the colors of powder blue and yellow, and the shape of a lightning bolt. Feeling "close" to 100 percent, he has practiced all week, preparing for Sunday's AFC division playoff showdown against the San Diego Chargers.
The game is a rematch of their gritty Nov. 16 meeting, when the Steelers prevailed in the first 11-10 outcome in NFL history. San Diego led 7-5 at the half and 10-8 with 6:41 to play, but the Steelers went on top with Jeff Reed's 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining.
The game ended in bizarre fashion six seconds later, when Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu recovered a fumbled lateral by the Chargers and returned it for a touchdown that would have made it 18-10. However, officials errantly ruled that the play was an illegal forward pass and negated the score.
Roethlisberger wound up completing 31 of 41 passes for 306 yards but no touchdowns against the aggressive Chargers defense. He expects another tough challenge now that the unit has had more time with defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who took over the job Oct. 28.
"The last time that we played them, it was (Rivera's) first or second game; it was relatively early for him," he said. "I think that they have gotten more comfortable. … We're really going to have to be prepared."
How Roethlisberger settles in following his concussion will be a key as well. He sustained his previous one Oct. 22, 2006 in Atlanta and one week later self-destructed in Oakland: four interceptions (including two returned for touchdowns), five sacks and a 20-13 loss.
But Roethlisberger says the additional week off this time around has made a big difference in his recovery. And he insists he has no worries moving forward.
"You can't afford to," he said. "It's just like when a player comes off of a knee surgery or some kind of injury; you can't go out there scared or afraid to get hurt because that is when you get hurt. I am going to go out there and play normal football, and if I get hit, I get hit."
He's just glad that Heinz Field has a more forgiving natural surface, or he might still be out of commission: "That grass — you know, the soft Heinz Field — might've helped a little bit."
Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, who relieved Roethlisberger against Cleveland and directed a 31-0 rout, has also taken snaps with the first-team offense this week. But coach Mike Tomlin said he has no added concerns over his No. 1 quarterback. The challenge, according to both, is to play better inside the red zone against San Diego.
"We can drive the ball up and down the field, but the big thing is that we have to be able to put it in when we get down there," Roethlisberger said.
He had better success in 2007, posting career highs in quarterback rating (104.1) and touchdowns (32) while throwing just 11 interceptions. He has been more uneven this season with 17 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a rating of 80.1. Pittsburgh's hard-nosed defense is the hallmark of the team, but how Roethlisberger plays — especially after his concussion — could still make the difference.
Does he have any more tests?
"The next test," he replied, "is Sunday against the San Diego Chargers."