Ben Roethlisberger stood in the pocket with no one near him. Then he stood there some more.
He eventually faded a few steps to his left, finally saw a Browns defender enter his zip code and threw a jump ball to Antonio Brown for 38 yards and a game-sealing first down as the Steelers beat the Browns 21-18 in last year’s opener. The backbreaker came on second-and-12 in the final three minutes.
Defensive end Myles Garrett was nowhere to be seen. Days after suffering a high ankle sprain in practice that sidelined him for a month, the No. 1 pick watched his first NFL game from a suite.
A year later he’s healthy and convinced he would’ve made the difference back then and will now.
“Yeah, that’s where I come in. He’s not able to extend that play,” Garrett said. “So I don’t think he gets that off, and I think that’s a different ballgame entirely if he’s not able to get that ball off.”
Garrett will finally get the chance to “chop down” Roethlisberger on Sunday at what’s expected to be a waterlogged FirstEnergy Stadium. Garrett stated that as his goal right after he was drafted but didn’t play against Roethlisberger last season.
“Mindset is the same as it would be any other week. I want to get to the passer. I want to make plays,” Garrett said. “I want to be dominant and I know the D-line wants to do the same thing. We’re all on the same page and we have a plan to get there and keep him from dominating the game and go out there and enact that.”
Roethlisberger and the Steelers have certainly dominated the Browns over the last decade-plus. Roethlisberger is 21-2 against Cleveland and the Steelers have won six straight and 26 of 29.
Garrett wants to change all of the ugly stats, including the Browns’ 1-18 mark in season openers. The only win was in 2004.
“I don’t care about the past,” he said. “I wasn’t part of it. So can’t speak for it. But to beat any team you’ve got to be able to finish, and that was a problem last year, closing out games, whether it was on offense or defense.
“And I feel like we have the people and the plan in place where we can stop teams from scoring at the end or put points on the board when we need to.”
Free safety Damarious Randall took it a step further.
“People will see how dominant we are Sunday,” he said, pointing to Garrett as a game-changer in the mold of Denver’s Von Miller, Chicago’s Khalil Mack and the Chargers’ Joey Bosa. “The one thing that I like about him is he doesn’t seem satisfied. It just seems like it’s times where Coach has to tell Myles to take a break.
“And when you have that type of motor, and as long as he can stay healthy throughout the season, the sky’s the limit for him. I’m sure one of the goals he has for himself is the Defensive Player of the Year and I’m just hoping he can get to that level of play and I’m just hoping he can stay healthy for us.”
Garrett (6-foot-4, 272 pounds) had seven sacks in 11 games last year with 31 tackles, a pass defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He missed the first four with the ankle injury coordinator Gregg Williams was surprised didn’t sideline him for the season.
“As long as they don’t take me out, I’m going to play through anything I can,” said Garrett, who had 32.5 sacks in 36 games at Texas A&M. “The best quality is availability and missing those games when my team was out there and they just needed a couple of big plays to change the flow of the beginning of the season, that hurt and that did stick with me, so it was one of the things that drove me to be in better condition, to be able to go for a longer play count, to be on the field more, and just being stronger, faster, come back as a more polished weapon.”
He succeeded. Garrett had an outstanding training camp and dominant preseason, raising the expectations even higher, then being voted a captain by teammates.
“He’s unblockable,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “He’s a healthy Myles. I just can’t wait to see Myles full thrust, go out there and dominate a game.”
Garrett’s pursuit of Roethlisberger, with Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (6-9, 320) blocking the path, will be a focus of the opener. The “chop down” comment caught the attention of Roethlisberger last year and Garrett expects the Steelers to do everything they can to avoid him yelling “timber.”
“I have to go out there and show that I’m actually a threat,” he said. “I plan to get back there a little bit.”
A reporter relayed the information to Roethlisberger.
“Yeah, he’s been talking about that for a while now, so hopefully Al does a great job,” he said. “What an animal, a guy that just gets after the quarterback. We are really going to have to keep two eyes on him.”
If Garrett reaches Roethlisberger and can take down all 6-5 and 240 pounds, they’ll have plenty to talk about. Garrett drew laughs and generated buzz for shredding a picture of Roethlisberger while dressed like Dwight K. Schrute in the Browns’ offseason video spoof of “The Office.”
Roethlisberger said he saw it.
“It’s just a joke,” Garrett said. “I’m here to have a little bit of fun and play some football. It goes along with what I’m trying to do, so I had no problem doing it.
“I hope (the Steelers) bring it up a little bit. That would probably be a little bit funny.”
The Office (2018) pic.twitter.com/1BCB97Lkuj
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) July 19, 2018
At the root of Garrett’s preoccupation with Roethlisberger is admiration.
“I mean, he’s a multiple-time Super Bowl champion, so you know he’s played on a high level consistently for years so you have to be able to respect greatness when you see it,” Garrett said. “But you also have to seize the opportunity of being able to usurping that position. So you have to be able to respect it but don’t be afraid of it and don’t be afraid of that moment.”
The big moments will likely determine the outcome of the opener. They’re the ones where Garrett was missed the most last year.
“In the crucial part of the game, it really comes down to four or five plays,” receiver Josh Gordon said. “I think it’s going to come down to defensive stops and it’s going to start with 95 on the edge making extremely athletic plays the likes of which we might not have seen before.
“I know he’s capable of doing it. We’ve seen it in practice. He’s extremely fast. I’ve never seen a guy that big move like that, but I think he’s ready to step up to the challenge. We’re all counting on him to get to the quarterback and make a difference.”