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Still Fighting

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The Steelers were forced to use three quarterbacks as replacements for Ben Roethlisberger during his suspension. If you didn’t know any better, you might think he was irreplaceable. But you would be wrong.

It is true; there is only one Ben. But replacing him this season is one of the things the Steelers do best.

It really didn’t matter who played quarterback in the first three games—young, old, slow of foot—the Steelers won, anyway.

The Steelers are not a better team without Roethisberger. Don’t be ridiculous.

They are merely undefeated without Roethlisberger. That’s the point.

 

Less than a month ago, few people outside the team’s locker room expected the Steelers to win more than two games without their starting quarterback. Surprise! They won every time they played in September.

And—guess what?—they beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with fourth-string, 35-year-old quarterback Charlie Batch throwing three touchdown passes after knee injuries put Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon on the shelf.

What other NFL team has four competent quarterbacks on its roster? Answer: None.

The process of replacing Roethlisberger started in the spring when the Steelers, sensing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell getting ready to slap handcuffs on their drunken sailor, traded for Leftwich.

The Buccaneers slammed the door on Leftwich, 30, after he struggled last season, but the Steelers were only too happy to act like the Salvation Army and find a home for him.

Why? Desperation can be a powerful force. Roethlisberger’s indiscretions appeared to leave coach Mike Tomlin little choice.

Speaking of choices, Leftwich was the chosen one back as far as the spring when Tomlin began doling out the majority of the first-team practice snaps to the least athletic quarterback on his roster.

Tomlin did save plenty of important work for Dixon and Roethlisberger; meanwhile, he all but forgot about Batch. Most likely, Tomlin eventually would have released him under different circumstances.

The plan looked good in theory. After all, Batch’s recent injury history all but dictated that he would not last the season. Tomlin didn’t want to give Batch the job, only to see him injured again.

When Leftwich injured his knee in the final preseason game, the situation started to change.

Dixon got the call and played reasonably well in victories against the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans. He completed 22-of-32 passes for 254 yards and only one interception, but the defense received most of the credit for the 2-0 start.

Meanwhile, the team’s quarterback position continued to unravel. Before the Steelers could leave Tennessee safely after the second game, Dixon hurt his knee, an injury that has shelved him for the remainder of the season.

Enter Batch – the player who wasn’t trusted to stay healthy, but the only one still standing by Week 3.

Batch is too much of a professional to say, “I told you so.”

Besides, you couldn’t find a nicer guy in the NFL.

Word was that the passing game would be the Steelers’ downfall during Roethlisberger's absence. That appeared to be true after the Steelers, with Dixon along for the ride, threw an NFL-low 43 passes in the first two games.

If that had been last year's Steelers defense on the other side of the ball, the team might have started 0-2. But the return to good health of Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith, and the emergence of Lawrence Timmons as a violent force in the middle made Dixon's job a lot easier.

The Falcons and Titans only managed a total of 20 points; the Dixon-led offense was not spectacular, but it scored just enough to win both games.

Finally, in Tampa, Fla., Batch, who has been playing quarterback for pay since 1998, put the big play back in the passing game. He hit wide receiver Mike Wallace for 46- and 41-yard touchdowns in a 38-13 victory against the Buccaneers.

Veteran Hines Ward also caught a scoring pass from Batch after expressing some concern about the situation before the game.

“It is tough sometimes when you have a different signal caller, every other week,” he said.

Sure is, but the Steelers found a way, and were one of only three undefeated teams in the NFL after three games. And they didn’t do it against weak opponents. Each of the three victims started the season 2-0 against teams other than the Steelers.

Dare we say it? The Steelers have looked like one of the best teams in the league.

Former coach Bill Cowher, an NFL analyst on CBS, wasn’t predicting Super Bowl, but he made his feelings clear about his former team’s chances.

“I wouldn’t say I am surprised, but I am impressed,” he said before the Steelers won their third game. “If Ben comes back and they stay healthy, my gosh, is there a better team in football? They are the best defensive team, without a doubt. They are looking, potentially, at home-field advantage (in the playoffs).”

Fortunes change in the NFL on a weekly basis, so Cowher’s prediction still must stand the test of time.

But the running game remains solid, the offensive line keeps surviving injuries to starters and the defense is just this side of ferocious.

Insert Roethlisberger into that formula, and it’s no wonder Ward said:

“The league don’t want us to be 4-0 with a mad Ben coming back.”

The league doesn't have to fret about a 4-0 Steelers, but they've got a 3-1 team tied atop the AFC North with their best offensive player back in the fold. That's close.

Potentially, the Steelers can have a productive passing game – an impressive achievement only a few months after trading Santonio Holmes. But they don’t appear to be a team that must lean on its aerial game, even though they will have a two-time Super Bowl champion and one of the game’s great quarterbacks leading the way.

Running back Rashard Mendenhall ran for 332 yards in the first three games, rushing for 143 in the third after totaling 189 in the first two. What is especially heartening is that the offensive line wasn’t supposed to be good enough for that to happen.

Maybe it won’t last. Hard times are ahead. They're always just around the corner in the NFL. There are still five games against their AFC North rivals and the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and defending champion New Orleans Saints also remain on the schedule.

But all signs were positive in late September. The Steelers’ secondary wasn’t making the silly mistakes in coverage that marked the 2009 season. The offense has committed four turnovers, but the defense refuses to allow that to decide games.

A big reason is Polamalu, who had two interceptions in the first two games. His passion for the game is as strong as ever.

In Nashville, Tenn., he leaped over the Titans’ offensive line to tackle quarterback Kerry Collins almost before he could take the snap. Considering Collins’ age (37) and Polamalu’s athleticism, it was like a lion dragging down an old, tired gazelle.

Then, there was that leaping, lunging catch he made of an errant pass in Tampa – while he was out of the game and standing on the sideline.

What’s interesting is that 11 Steelers defenders, not all of them starters, have recorded at least one big play – an interception, fumble recovery or sack.

Want more good news? Roughly 75 percent of all NFL teams that have started 3-0 ended up in the playoffs. That’s a good sign for the Steelers, but hardly a guarantee.

A better sign: They won three games without their best player.

If Roethlisberger is ready to go when he returns to his teammates Oct. 4, the Steelers still could get beat, but they won't go down without a fight.

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