How the Steelers can survive without Big Ben

Talking NFL football over the weekend, I have a sense that we’re too quick right now when it comes to how we view the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger.

The suspension — which could be a six game penalty — is tough. There’s no way to spin a suspension to a QB, one who can be called a “franchise-level” guy in certain discussions. We know that, and we also know that the AFC North is loaded with upgrades the Bengals and the Ravens made to their rosters.

Start out slowly in the first month and a half of the season and Pittsburgh can forget about any postseason talk.

However, coaches and players in this league don’t have issues with adversity. The suspension to Big Ben will be treated like an injury to a player. Next guy up and get out of the way. Sure, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are not Roethlisberger. They aren’t the type of QBs who can bail out a defense repeatedly, and they aren’t walking around with two rings.

But they don’t have to be if the Steelers adjust — which they will under coach Mike Tomlin. It is his job to sell this team on playing football with a different style that wins.

Roethlisberger threw the ball over 500 times last season -- a career high for Big Ben and, in reality, an offense (and a team) that relied on its QB to make plays in the fourth quarter to win games. Can’t happen anymore. This offense will have to become more balanced. There’s not other way around it.

Finding a replacement between Dixon and Leftwich is the first order of business, and for a team that needs an offensive leader, I expect it to be done before the Steelers take the field for their first preseason game. But whomever it is will have to work within the system of the offense, use the running game to set up manageable third down situations and, when he has to, make a play — and get it done.

RB Rashard Mendenhall is a former first round pick — and it’s time that he plays like one. If that means carrying the ball 20-plus times every Sunday — with production — then that’s his role. Everyone on that team will be asked to adapt, to change and to alter they way this team plays.

And that includes the defense. With Troy Polamalu back, I expect Dick LeBeau’s defense to return to a style that doesn’t blow leads in the fourth quarter and can attack at all times — instead of playing back on its heels. This unit will have to force turnovers and will have to set up the offense with a short field to work with. There might be games when they have to score on defense to win. It happens, and they have the talent to do it.

I know it’s only May, and talking about the 2010 season can just be pure speculation. But I don’t see this as speculation when we talk about Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger is gone — for a while — and neither Tomlin, Hines Ward, Ryan Clark, etc. is going to wait around for him.

They have a season to prepare for, and that preparation will have to change for this team to keep pace with the rest of the division. Expect to see new-look Steelers in September.

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