Kevin Gorman: For Steelers, a Volunteer takes the Ravens hostage
Mike Tomlin made headlines before Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens in response to a question about Le’Veon Bell, saying the Pittsburgh Steelers “need volunteers, not hostages.”
Turns out, a Volunteer took the Ravens hostage.
“That’s pretty cool that he used that word,” Josh Dobbs said, with a smile, “because, obviously, that word means a good bit to me.”
The Steelers’ second-year backup quarterback from Tennessee didn’t just complete his first NFL pass in the 23-16 victory over the Ravens Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. Dobbs did so in the most critical circumstance of a crucial AFC North game, making a 22-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster that was as meaningful as it will be memorable.
Ben Roethlisberger was running toward the Steelers sideline when he was chased down by Ravens outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who knocked the wind out of Big Ben by landing on him. In that moment, however, no one knew the extent of Roethlisberger’s injury.
“It’s a nervous feeling,” Smith-Schuster said. “It’s tough when our starting quarterback goes down. The whole world is wondering what’s going on.”
That’s the thing Steelers fans feared the most this season, that an injury to Roethlisberger meant doom to their Super Bowl hopes.
Dobbs was the surprise story of the preseason, when he shined in the finale to beat out incumbent Landry Jones and third-round pick Mason Rudolph for the backup job. But preseason games don’t count. And Dobbs’ only prior NFL game experience was taking a knee out of the victory formation against Atlanta and Cleveland.
Dobbs was a mystery to most.
Not to the Steelers and Tomlin, who expressed “a great deal of confidence” in Dobbs, who earned an aerospace engineering degree and has what Tomlin called a “uniquely mature” personality trait.
“You know, that guy was challenged in a big way, to earn the job he has, the role that he has for us,” Tomlin said. “He has never blinked at any point in the process, even when it was seemingly stacked against him. Because of that, we have a great deal of confidence in him, and it was displayed. He confirmed it with his play.”
Really, Dobbs confirmed it with his preparation in practice, working with the starters every Wednesday while Roethlisberger receives a rest as a veteran’s day off. The Steelers knew what they had in Dobbs, and took advantage that the Ravens didn’t.
“Josh prepares every day, every week like he’s the starter,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s what you ask from a backup, the guy that can go in there at any time, at a moment’s notice, and make a play. Not just come in and hand the ball off. We expect him to make a big play — and that was a huge play he made.”
As Roethlisberger remained on the turf, Dobbs started throwing passes on the sideline to fullback Roosevelt Nix and taking snaps from center Maurkice Pouncey. Finally, Roethlisberger got up and walked off.
“I got to warm up,” Dobbs said. “Ben milked it a little bit for me.”
To top it off, officials announced a holding penalty on left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, giving the Steelers a second-and-20 from their own 5-yard line against the NFL’s No. 1 defense while clinging to a seven-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
“That’s not easy for a starter, a guy who’s been in the league for a long time,” said Roethlisberger, himself a 15-year veteran. “In his own end zone, I think. I didn’t know what play was called — I expected a run — but you can’t take anything away from Josh.”
Afterward, Roethlisberger joked the Steelers called a run play only to see Dobbs check to a pass. Dobbs laughed and played along, but he knew he had a handful of options on what he called a “shot play.” So, he surveyed the defensive formation, eyeing the linemen and linebackers, then took the snap and hoped for a first down or third-and-manageable.
“I was just trying to take it all in and enjoy it,” Dobbs said. “It was fun to be out there, even though it was short, it was quick, it was a blur.”
Dobbs dropped back into the end zone for his first NFL pass — and it was unbelievable as it sounds — and fired a pass over the middle to Smith-Schuster for a first down at the Baltimore 27. The Ravens were stunned.
Despite joking that “I almost left Josh in after that play,” Roethlisberger returned and, two plays later, lofted a pass down the right sideline to tight end Jesse James for a 51-yard gain to set up Chris Boswell’s 29-yard field goal to turn it into a two-possession game.
Dobbs had done his job, better than anyone could have imagined.
“It was one play,” Dobbs said, “but you want to make the most out of your opportunity.”
It was one play, but Steelers got the most out of it.
They didn’t even need to leave a ransom note.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.