1 Pittsburgh STEELERS

The timing of Big Ben's return will make a dramatic difference in Steeltown
September 05, 2010

THE STEELERS aren't big on change. The Rooneys—first Art, then son Dan and now grandson Art II—have run the team since its founding in 1933. Pittsburgh has had three coaches since the Vietnam War and has used the same training camp site, St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., for 43 years. Of the 84 players on the roster or injured list in mid-August, 79 were either Steelers last year, former Steelers back trying to win jobs, players trying to make their first NFL team or players off the street who had no other demand for their services. Of the five veteran free agents with significant pro experience whom Pittsburgh signed, only one, Flozell Adams, has a chance to start—and he's a 35-year-old stopgap who was picked up only because starting right tackle Willie Colon tore his right Achilles tendon in June.

We may never know how close Pittsburgh came to a sea change at quarterback this off-season, after Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault for the second time in eight months. The two-time Super Bowl winner was not charged in either incident, but his behavior led commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend him for six games at the start of this season. While the Steelers traded Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to the Jets after his second violation of the NFL substance abuse policy, they gave Roethlisberger a final chance to stop being a lout. As part of his rehab effort, he moved his father and stepmother to the Pittsburgh suburbs for support and turned to former Steelers coach Bill Cowher and onetime running back Merril Hoge for guidance.

So what about rehabbing the 2010 Steelers? As Goodell mulled reducing Roethlisberger's suspension to four games—the likely scenario at week's end—Pittsburgh spent training camp deciding on a fill-in. Coach Mike Tomlin could choose between the experienced but slow-footed 30-year-old Byron Leftwich, a seven-year veteran with 49 career starts, or the quick and raw Dennis Dixon, 25, who's played in two NFL games in his two seasons. Tomlin seemed inclined to start Leftwich in the Sept. 12 opener against the Falcons, and Leftwich's beautiful 68-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace in a preseason win over the Giants certainly helped his cause. But Tomlin could make a change within the first month. Pittsburgh hosts the division rival Ravens in Week 4, and Dixon showed promise in his one start, an overtime loss at Baltimore last year. There's no doubt the aggressive Ravens pass rushers would rather set their sights on Leftwich than the slippery Dixon. "Whoever's in there," says Tomlin, "the expectations don't change. We have to win, and the players will respond."

Once the preseason ends, Roethlisberger cannot be on Steelers property, work out with teammates or have contact with the coaches. He'll stay in shape by using a personal trainer and doing football drills each day. "Whatever happens," he said in training camp, "I'm in the best shape of my life right now, and I'm going to stay that way. No doubt in my mind, I'll be ready to go when I get back."

If Goodell reduces the suspension, Roethlisberger could begin working with the team on Oct. 4, heading into Pittsburgh's bye; that would give him 13 days to prepare for a return against the Browns at Heinz Field. If the suspension isn't reduced, he'd be banned from contact with the Steelers until Oct. 25, just six days before perhaps their toughest game of the year, at New Orleans. Thirteen days to prepare for a division also-ran at home or six days to get ready for the champion Saints on the road. Goodell's call will absolutely be season-altering for the Steelers.

Pittsburgh has seen a different Roethlisberger this summer—far more fan-friendly, not as aloof in the locker room. As one of his friends says, "Ben just wasn't equipped to be a famous person. He didn't know how to handle it. Now you'll see more of a normal guy who just wants to play football." Veteran wideout Hines Ward, who has been bluntly critical of Roethlisberger at times, said the quarterback has been making "a valiant effort" to be a better teammate.

"He's determined to handle all things in his life better," says Art Rooney II, "and he's been doing a good job so far."

Can Roethlisberger turn his life around? For the sake of the Steelers, and his future in Pittsburgh, he'd better.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH MIKE TOMLIN

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 7

QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER

G 15

ATT 506

COMP 337

PCT 66.6

YARDS 4,328

TD 26

INT 12

RATING 100.5

RB RASHARD MENDENHALL

G 16

ATT 242

YARDS 1,108

AVG 4.6

REC 25

YARDS 261

AVG 10.4

TTD 8

FB FRANK SUMMERS

G 2

ATT 0

YARDS 0

AVG —

REC 0

YARDS 0

AVG —

TTD 0

WR HINES WARD

G 16

REC 95

YARDS 1,167

TTD 6

WR MIKE WALLACE

G 16

REC 39

YARDS 756

TTD 6

TE HEATH MILLER

G 16

REC 76

YARDS 789

TTD 6

LT MAX STARKS

G 16

HT 6'8"

WT 345

LG CHRIS KEMOEATU

G 12

HT 6'3"

WT 344

C MAURKICE POUNCEY (R)

G 14

HT 6'4"

WT 304

RG TRAI ESSEX

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 324

RT FLOZELL ADAMS

G 16

HT 6'7"

WT 338

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 5

DE AARON SMITH

G 5

TACKLES 9

SACKS 2

INT 0

NT CASEY HAMPTON

G 16

TACKLES 43

SACKS 2½

INT 0

DE BRETT KEISEL

G 15

TACKLES 54

SACKS 3

INT 0

LB LAMARR WOODLEY

G 16

TACKLES 62

SACKS 13½

INT 0

LB JAMES FARRIOR

G 16

TACKLES 102

SACKS 3

INT 1

LB LAWRENCE TIMMONS

G 14

TACKLES 78

SACKS 7

INT 0

LB JAMES HARRISON

G 16

TACKLES 79

SACKS 10

INT 0

CB IKE TAYLOR

G 16

TACKLES 62

SACKS 1

INT 1

FS RYAN CLARK

G 15

TACKLES 89

SACKS 0

INT 3

SS TROY POLAMALU

G 5

TACKLES 20

SACKS 0

INT 3

CB BRYANT MCFADDEN

G 16

TACKLES 69

SACKS 0

INT 0

SPECIAL TEAMS

P DANIEL SEPULVEDA

PUNTS 72

AVG 42.7

NET 37.1

K JEFF REED

FG 27--31

XP 41--41

POINTS 122

PR STEFAN LOGAN

RET 30

AVG 9.3

TD 0

KR STEFAN LOGAN

RET 55

AVG 26.7

TD 0

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record : 9--7

September

12 Atlanta

19 at Tennessee

26 at Tampa Bay

October

3 Baltimore

10 BYE

17 Cleveland

24 at Miami

31 at New Orleans

November

8 at Cincinnati (M)

14 New England

21 Oakland

28 at Buffalo

December

5 at Baltimore

12 Cincinnati

19 N.Y. Jets

23 Carolina (T)

January

2 at Cleveland

(M) Monday (T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 21

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .492

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 7

ANALYSIS

The Steelers have the weakest schedule in the division, which should ease the sting of Ben Roethlisberger's suspension. If it's only for four games (instead of six), he has a chance to get rolling quickly, with matchups against three teams—the Browns, Dolphins and Saints—that struggled on D last year: All were in the bottom 10 against the pass in 2009.

SPOTLIGHT

Mike Wallace, Wide receiver

IN THREE YEARS at Mississippi and one with the Steelers, Wallace has caught 140 passes, total. So how can he be qualified to replace Santonio Holmes, a Super Bowl MVP coming off the best year of his career? Losing Holmes's 79 receptions, particularly with a backup quarterback playing at least the first quarter of the season, presents a huge headache for the Steelers—and a huge challenge for Wallace. Confidence, at least, won't be an issue for the 24-year-old. "My plan," he says, "is to go to the Pro Bowl ASAP. ASAP, to me, is this year."

The 6-foot, 199-pound Wallace has more speed than Holmes; he ran a sub-4.3-second 40-yard dash at Mississippi and gained a league-leading 19.4 yards per reception as a rookie. It's the fine points of the position he must master. He's had to become a more disciplined route-runner while learning how to get in and out of cuts more quickly, so that he can catch balls thrown to spots. That was his mission throughout the summer, when he watched a lot of tape on Holmes. One day at camp Wallace stayed on the field after practice for 25 minutes, doing nothing but running sideline and corner routes on cornerbacks.

The Steelers have two intermediate targets to troll the middle of the field in wide receiver Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller. But no one on the roster can match Wallace as a long-ball threat, and he ran countless deep routes in camp and in preseason games, trying to get on the same page quickly with the quarterbacks. Wallace will have to deal with safety-over-the-top coverage, which he didn't often see as a third receiver last year, but that doesn't faze him either. "I've been waiting for this moment," Wallace says, "and there's no doubt I'll do it." The Steelers are gambling he can.

PHOTOBILL FRAKESWAITING GAME Ward will help keep the offense in gear until Roethlisberger gets back. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)