KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t remember a whole lot about the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Steelers’ quarterback sustained a concussion when his head banged into the knee of Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson as he leaned headfirst during a running play in overtime. He came back to play some of his best games of the 2009 season afterward, twice throwing for three touchdowns without an interception and leading Pittsburgh to a second-place finish in the AFC North.
It certainly wasn’t the first time Big Ben was banged up.
There have been numerous concussions, several knee injuries, and a fractured thumb sustained a few weeks ago against Cincinnati. Roethlisberger plans to play Sunday night against Kansas City, even though he admitted it’ll be painful, and that’s dreadful news to the Chiefs.
The truth is that Roethlisberger seems to play better when he’s ailing.
“He’s an extremely intense competitor,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “and I think adversity such as that brings that out of him. I think it’s a characteristic that all good competitors have.”
Pittsburgh had last week off, giving Roethlisberger time to heal. But the thumb still bothered him in practice this week, and he didn’t take snaps under center early in the week, working out of the shotgun with a splint under his glove to protect it.
It’s unclear how Pittsburgh might alter its playbook in light of the injury, though it won’t be the first time there have been subtle tweaks. The team worked out of the shotgun and pistol last year against Baltimore to take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger’s sprained foot.
“I’ll be out there, I guarantee that,” Roethlisberger said. “It won’t be an issue that way. Will it be an issue with pain and throwing? I don’t know.”
Roethlisberger said he doesn’t plan to take an injection to numb the pain. Instead, he’ll simply play right through it, something he’s done with tremendous success at other times in his career.
“For me the reason I want to play is for my guys,” he said. “When you’re dinged up a little bit, you have to play a little better, concentrate a little bit more.”
It would take a lot more than a banged up thumb to keep Roethlisberger out this week. The Steelers (7-3) are a half-game behind Baltimore (8-3) in the tough AFC North, with Cincinnati just a game back, heading into this week’s games. They have a good opportunity to pick up a win on the road against the Chiefs (4-6), who have lost three straight and been ravaged by injuries all season.
The latest occurred two weeks ago, when quarterback Matt Cassel hurt his throwing hand late in a loss to Denver. Any hope that he’d be able to return this season vanished the very next day when he had season-ending surgery, turning the reins of an offense already missing tight end Tony Moeaki and All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles to a journeyman quarterback in Tyler Palko.
Palko appeared comfortable despite throwing three interceptions in a 34-3 loss last week at New England, which earned him another start Sunday. After that is anyone’s guess.
The Chiefs picked up Kyle Orton off waivers from the Broncos on Wednesday, but he couldn’t make it to Kansas City until Friday. That meant there was virtually no chance he could get up to speed in time to play against the Steelers. With a tough stretch coming up, though, the Chiefs were willing to pay the roughly $2.6 million Orton is still owed to potentially play in just five games.
“We have consistently communicated that we are always looking to create competition and depth within our team,” Chiefs coach Todd Haley said. “We feel adding Kyle to our roster reinforces that goal and we look forward to having him as a member of the Chiefs.”
For as long as it may be. Orton is a free agent after this season.
In the meantime, Palko is preparing to make the second start of his professional career against a team that has made a habit of competing for Super Bowls. The son of a high school coach in western Pennsylvania said he’s undaunted by the challenge, especially after making his debut in a high-profile game on Monday night at New England a week ago.
“I was surprisingly calm throughout the whole game,” Palko said.
Playing the Steelers is especially meaningful for Palko because he grew up watching the Steelers, and even played at Heinz Field while he was leading the University of Pittsburgh.
The fact Kansas City could turn around its season with a victory — the Chiefs are two games behind AFC West-leading Oakland — only adds to the pressure. Another loss with a tough stretch looming would almost certainly eliminate Haley’s crew from playoff contention.
“I’m fired up,” Palko said. “It was fun growing up in Pittsburgh, seeing the Steelers, the black and gold, understanding the tradition. It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to it.”
at KANSAS CITY (4-6)
Today, 7:20 p.m., NBC
OPENING LINE — Steelers by 10 1/2
RECORD VS. SPREAD — Pittsburgh 5-5; Kansas City 5-5
SERIES RECORD — Steelers lead 17-10
LAST MEETING — Chiefs beat Steelers 27-24 in OT, Nov. 11, 2009
LAST WEEK — Steelers off; Chiefs lost to Patriots 34-3
STEELERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (9), RUSH (17), PASS (7)
STEELERS DEFENSE — OVERALL (2), RUSH (6), PASS (3)
CHIEFS OFFENSE — OVERALL (26), RUSH (9), PASS (28)
CHIEFS DEFENSE — OVERALL (23), RUSH (28), PASS (14)
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Former Steelers backup Tyler Palko will make second straight start for Kansas City in place of QB Matt Cassel, who was lost for season after hand injury. Palko threw three interceptions last week against New England. ... Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is expected to play despite fractured right thumb. ... Kansas City has won four games by an average of 10 points and lost six by an average of 24.7. ... Chiefs coach Todd Haley’s father, Dick Haley, played defensive back for Pittsburgh from 1961-64 and served as Steelers director of player personnel from 1971-90. Assistant offensive line coach Pat Perles’ father, George Perles, coached for Steelers from 1972-81. ... Steelers are 17-2 since 2010 when running ball at least 25 times in a game. Chiefs’ rush defense is ranked 28th in NFL. ... Chiefs have won their last five Sunday night games at home dating to 27-3 loss to Pittsburgh in October 1992. ... Pittsburgh has not won in Kansas City since a 20-17 victory on Oct. 14, 2001. ... Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is 3-1 after bye week. ... Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller needs six catches to surpass Elbie Nickel (329) for most by tight end, and 138 yards to pass Santonio Holmes (3,835) for ninth on franchise receiving list.