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A Passer's Chance

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The list of reasons why the Steelers don’t look like Super Bowl champions—despite a 7-3 record at Thanksgiving—is long.

At the top are the injuries to the offensive line that have forced shuffling of players into new positions, even after they were struggling in their former, more accustomed spots.

Then, there is the secondary. Don’t you get the feeling that sometime on a cold day in January, William Gay or Bryant McFadden—maybe both—will  allow a pass catcher to run free and score a big touchdown?

The other is the unfettered aggression that was partially responsible for a team record 163 yards in penalties in an otherwise perfect 35-3 victory against the Oakland Raiders. (Play tough, Steelers, but play smart, too.)

Now, draw a line vertically on your piece of paper and on the other side, scribble the name Ben Roethlisberger.

That’s the best reason why the Steelers have a chance. (OK, the defense is pretty good, too. Pittsburgh is the first team in NFL history to hold each of its first eight opponents to fewer than 75 yards rushing.)

Here is the essence of the Steelers of 2010:

Roethlisberger has had little help from the running game and some leaky shields in front of him on the offensive line. Still, he led the Steelers to a 4-2 record in a stretch of games that included three consecutive road trips after he was suspended for the first four.

He overcame 14 sacks in the first six games after his suspension was lifted by throwing 12 touchdown passes and running for another on a play against the Raiders where he ignored the security of the sideline, cut back toward defensive traffic and dived into the end zone.

Bravery is not the appropriate word because, after all, we are just talking about football. Toughness is Roethlisberger's ticket to greatness.

Those people who insist on ranking NFL quarterbacks from top to bottom would probably place Roethlisberger no better than No. 4 behind Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. You can argue the point, but who cares? What matters most about about Roethlisberger are the following points:

He is a great playmaker who uses his arms, legs and mind with equal trust and prowess.

He is a leader who has regained the respect of his teammates after many of them wondered if he should remain on the roster.

He is a quarterback who gives his team a chance to win every time it steps on the field, no matter the odds or that particular week’s problems.

The Steelers are a different team on this first week in December than they were in training camp and through the first four games of the season when Roethlisberger was suspended. Without Roethlisberger, the play-calling included running plays 60.3 percent of the time.Rashard Mendenhall ran for 120 and 143 yards against the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two of the best teams in the NFC.

The Steelers were 3-1 without their best player, a tribute to coach Mike Tomlin’s focus and how he passed it on to his players, and his staff's ability to adjust to its talent.

With Roethlisberger, running plays dipped to 47.1 percent, and Mendenhall put together efforts of 37, 50 and 59 yards against the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Raiders. Sounds bad, right?

The Steelers won two of those games.

Tomlin, rightly, said the running game remains important to the Steelers. He allowed Mendenhall 23 carries against the Raiders, even though he didn’t have one carry for more than nine yards. When Mendenhall gained 99 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Tomlin said, “We have to run the ball in a timely manner, and that was a timely manner.”

Fine.

But the Steelers are going nowhere without Roethlisberger.

The future may be kind to the Steelers, with three of their final five games against the Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Browns. But there are no guarantees in the NFL.

The key has been what happened in the past giving the Steelers a chance.

The Steelers drafted Roethlisberger in 2004, a bit of a gamble because it was the only time in three decades and 31 selections that they used their first-round pick on a quarterback.

Imagine, if you dare, what might have happened to the team if police investigators in Georgia earlier this year were able to assemble enough evidence to prosecute the Steelers quarterback on sexual misconduct charges.

The Steelers and Roethlisberger got lucky, but he used the legal reprieve to become a better person and, perhaps, an even more reliable quarterback. Roethlisberger hopes his past doesn’t, ultimately, define him, although it might have saved him from himself.

And saved the Steelers.

Someday, the Steelers will need to survive without Roethlisberger. Today, their offensive line, running game and secondary aren’t good enough to win without him. If one of those three elements ever starts playing as effectively as the quarterback, the Steelers have a legitimate chance to return to the Super Bowl.

Without some help, Roethlisberger’s shoulders are only so broad.

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