The first time they faced off was back in 2004, when a rookie quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger directed two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to snatch a win from the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium.
Roethlisberger would get the better of Mike Zimmer during his first two games as the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive coordinator, too, when the Pittsburgh Steelers breezed to 28- and 17-point wins in 2008. But over the course of their next 10 meetings in the AFC North, Zimmer would show Roethlisberger he was not to be taken lightly.
The Bengals would take four of the next 10 meetings from the Steelers during the remainder of Zimmer’s time in Cincinnati, and over the course of Zimmer’s six years in the AFC North, Roethlisberger had a modest passer rating of 84.6, throwing for 12 touchdowns against nine interceptions while being sacked 27 times.
They will meet for the 14th time in their respective careers on Sunday at Heinz Field, making Roethlisberger the quarterback Zimmer has faced the most in his 18 seasons as a defensive coordinator or head coach. He’d coached against Donovan McNabb 13 times — 12 in Dallas, and the infamous game in 2008 where McNabb admitted he didn’t know two teams could tie — and will face Joe Flacco for the 13th time later this year.
This meeting with Roethlisberger, though, could be the last, with the Vikings and Steelers not scheduled to play again until 2021 and given the fact 35-year-old Roethlisberger was mulling retirement after last season.
The longtime competitors know what to expect from one another, and as the Vikings head into what appears to be one of their toughest road tests of the season, Zimmer will try to get the better of Roethlisberger one more time.
“The thing I’ve always admired about him is he’s going to stand in there, he’s going to take the shot and he’s going to let it rip. And he’s accurate when you hit him,” Zimmer said. “We’ve had some free guys hit him in the past and he’s made some unbelievably great throws. He hasn’t changed in that way at all.”
Facing the two-time Super Bowl champion brings a distinct set of challenges to a defense that’s gotten the better of Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Eli Manning and Drew Brees, among others, in the past 12 months.
Roethlisberger’s size (6-5, 240 pounds) means taking him to the ground is a more complex process than it is with most quarterbacks. “Just because you get around him doesn’t mean you sack him,” Zimmer said.
He’s not the running threat he used to be, but he’s more mobile than many would expect, and his ability to launch throws downfield, even with a defender impairing his follow-through, has made broken plays almost a staple of the Steelers’ offense.
In 13 games against Zimmer’s defenses over the course of his career, Roethlisberger has completed 40 passes of 20 yards or more, including a pair of wins (in 2010 and 2012) where he connected on six.
“It’s hard to cover Antonio Brown when [Roethlisberger]’s scrambling around,” Zimmer said. “This guy’s quicker than a cat. [Roethlisberger] starts moving around, and this guy [Brown]’s gone.”
For two teams that see each other once every four years, the Vikings and Steelers know plenty about one another, given Zimmer’s time in Cincinnati and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s two years as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach.
Asked whom all that familiarity helps more, Zimmer said, “I think he [Roethlisberger]’s probably got the advantage.”
And Roethlisberger, on his oft-underwhelming stats against Zimmer? “That’s all that should really matter; it should be winning,” the quarterback said this week. “It shouldn’t matter what your stats are. Stats are for individuals.”
A win on Sunday would be Zimmer’s fifth against his longtime foe. It would put the Vikings at 2-0 heading into a stretch of four home games in five weeks, and it would provide a statement win — on the road, against an AFC title game participant — for a club confident it can reassert itself after last season’s slide.
He might not have landed the most punches in their history against one another, but Zimmer can score a big one against Roethlisberger on Sunday.