This story appears in the Nov. 28 "One Day, One Game" issue of ESPN The Magazine.
As fired-up Steelers bound out of the locker room in the bowels of Reliant Stadium, they're careful not to disturb their QB. Ben Roethlisberger leans against a wall with his eyes closed, taking a final minute to mentally prepare. The eight-year vet has won two Super Bowls and 32 road games, more than Aaron Rodgers has played. He thinks about how the crowd in the closed stadium will be loud. About his injured offensive line. And about how Texans OLB Mario Williams sacked him twice the last time they played each other. As the last Steeler passes, Roethlisberger breaks his trance and jogs out of the tunnel. Then, just before kicking into a full sprint, No. 7 yells: "We rollin', we rollin'."
Beginning with the first snap, the Texans gun for Ben Roethlisberger. They blitz him 22 times, 61 percent of Steelers pass plays, nearly double the NFL average in a single game. Houston's 6'6", 283-pound all-time sack leader, Mario Williams (bottom left), takes Big Ben down twice, leaving the defender exhausted. "Ben is big and shiftier than you think," says Williams. "You have to keep his arm pinned because he likes to throw while going down." After the play, Williams lumbers to the bench and takes 10 long breaths through an oxygen mask.
Pittsburgh is starting its fourth offensive line combo in as many weeks. Guarding Ben Roethlisberger's blind side is backup left tackle Trai Essex, a seven-year vet. By the third quarter, Roethlisberger is fed up with visits from Houston defenders. "We need to talk!" he barks at Essex as they head toward the bench. The quarterback plops down next to all of his linemen and yells, "What's done is done. Sacks are a team negative." When he walks away, the line stays put -- and seems to all game -- as Houston racks up five sacks and eight QB hurries.
When center Maurkice Pouncey lifts Big Ben off the turf with 1:02 remaining, the game is all but over. The Steelers fall to 2-2, and some wonder whether their window as an elite team is slamming shut. Five days later, back in the Steelers' locker room, reporters ask Pouncey to respond to anonymous teammates' public questioning of his unit. Nearby, Roethlisberger, in a walking boot to protect his sprained left ankle, breaks the tension. "I'm the leak." He then adds: "We have a lot to improve. But I've got a good feeling." The Steelers go on to win four straight. The Texans become nothing but a memory.