by Alan Robinson
Associated Press Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP)—Maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t exceed their own expectations by going 3-1 without Ben Roethlisberger. They certainly surprised a league that figured any team forced to start its No. 3 and No. 4 quarterbacks in September was in trouble.

Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon didn’t play up to Roethlisberger’s level, but they kept the Steelers atop the AFC North and made certain their season wasn’t ruined by the time Roethlisberger returned from his four-game suspension.

GETTING READY—Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, left, stands with quarterback Byron Leftwich during passing drills at the NFL football team’s practice facility, Oct. 5. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

“If you had told us we’d be 3-1 at the beginning of the year without Ben, no one outside of this locker room would have given us a chance,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “But it’s definitely great to have Ben back on our side.”

Now comes the question everyone in the AFC North is asking: How much better can the Steelers be now that their franchise quarterback is back?

The answer: Perhaps only as good as Roethlisberger allows them to be. And it may require a few concessions by a player who always wants the ball in his hands when the clock is winding down and games are being decided.

During their month without Roethlisberger, the longest stretch they’ve played without him since his NFL career began in 2004, the Steelers returned to their roots by winning with the running game. A season after Roethlisberger threw for a club-record 4,328 yards, or 604 yards more than any other quarterback in team history, Rashard Mendenhall is second in the league with 411 yards rushing.

Predictably, the Steelers are next to last in passing with a 136 yards per game, or 200 yards per game fewer than the Broncos.

While consistency in the passing game is lacking, re-emphasizing the run has improved the Steelers’ ability to extend drives and preserve leads, two notable deficiencies when they missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record a season ago.

What could change everything, including the newfound offensive balance, is if Roethlisberger returns Oct. 17 against Cleveland with a determination to show off his rested passing arm. Roethlisberger spent his month away from the team polishing his mechanics with a private quarterbacks coach.

“We’ve got to realize that our all-world quarterback is an all-world quarterback, but what we have established is great,” wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. “We’re going to add him to what has been established. That’s one thing we’ve got to realize, how much the run is going to complement the pass and how we can just grind it if we need to. We’re not going to get away from the things we’ve been doing well.”

The Steelers, who were off last weekend, begin a stretch in which they play five of eight on the road, including games at Miami, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Baltimore and a home game against New England.

While Roethlisberger always talks about the necessity of being balanced, the Steelers’ rushing attempts per season have declined from 618 during his rookie season to 428 last year. As a result, they became increasingly one-dimensional offensively, an abrupt change of direction for a franchise that has outrushed every NFL team by at least 5,113 yards since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

The Steelers are the only team with more than 20,000 rushing attempts since then; they have 20,831, with the Bears ranking second with 19,755 attempts, according to STATS LLC.

Now that he’s back, Roethlisberger should be able to open up an offense in which Ward has 12 receptions, a total surpassed by 67 other NFL receivers. Roethlisberger’s ability to throw the deep ball should help wide receiver Mike Wallace, who has two TD catches of more than 40 yards but isn’t consistently making catches of 20 yards-plus.

“I think Mike’s gotten faster since I’ve been gone,” Roethlisberger said.

While the Steelers will throw the ball more, left tackle Max Starks is convinced Roethlisberger won’t want to alter the offense’s rediscovered versatility.

“I hope people aren’t expecting us to light it up, because we just want to play consistently, control the line of scrimmage and control the time of possession,” Starks said. “That’s the best way for us to be successful. We had that the first three games, but we lost that a little bit in the last game. And it cost us.”

The Steelers were less than a minute away from beating Baltimore last weekend. But the offense couldn’t run out the clock and the Ravens drove 40 yards in a few seconds for the winning score and a 17-14 victory. If they had won, the Steelers would have been 4-0 for the first time in 31 years.

Pittsburgh’s defense was superb during most of Roethlisberger’s absence, allowing only 25 points in the first, second and third quarters.

Defensive end Brett Keisel insisted there won’t be a letup just because Roethlisberger is expected to give the defense more points to work with.

“We’re going to go out there with the same approach that we’ve had all along, and that’s to keep other teams out of the end zone,” he said. “That gives us the best chance to win games. It’s great to have him back and what he brings to our offense, but it’s not going to change our mentality on the defensive side of the ball.”

Whether Roethlisberger is willing to alter his mentality—after all, he is 68-28 as an NFL starter—might factor into how the Steelers do in their next 12 games.

“The offense is definitely going to go in another direction,” Wallace said. “It won’t change too much, but at the same time we’re going to throw the ball because we’ve got one of the best guys back. So I’m excited.”

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