It appears the Pittsburgh Steelers have survived the suspension of two-time Super Bowl-winning QB Ben Roethlisberger with flying colors.
The pro football experts around the league whom PFW talked to this past week, in advance of Roethlisberger's return to action from his four-game hiatus for violating the league's personal-conduct policy, agree that, because the Steelers' organization remains in a league of its own, the odds that Roethlisberger will be sporting a third Super Bowl ring four months from now are looking more than a little favorable.
There were many leaguewide observers who had predicted that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin would have a hard time keeping the Steelers ship on a steady course with Roethlisberger's off-the-field indiscretions creating a bad vibe in Steelers Nation that would linger well into the season.
In the tough AFC North — with a Ravens team predicted by many to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender and the defending division champion Bengals having appeared to be poised to take advantage of Roethlisberger's absence — the loss of Big Ben for a quarter of the season had created what looked like a potentially insurmountable hurdle.
But lo and behold, there were the Steelers, a mere half-minute away from going 4-0 without Roethlisberger before losing to the Ravens 17-14 in Week Four.
Credit the "Steelers Way" for keeping the curtain from closing prematurely on Pittsburgh's 2010 season.
"How many teams do you think could be 3-1 against a tough schedule without their starting quarterback?" one envious NFL team executive told PFW. "They are one of the few. It all starts with the Rooney family. They are so consistent in their approach.
"They adjust so well to what they have. Whether it's the quarterback or (star SS Troy) Polamalu or the linebackers, they plug and play.
"(Director of football operations) Kevin Colbert does a great job of building championship teams. He is very underrated. They fill needs as well as anyone in the league. That is why they are so competitive, year in and year out."
Especially on defense, where recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Dick LeBeau continues to work his magic at the age of 73 as the Steelers' stellar defensive coordinator. After five weeks, the Steelers rank fifth in total yards allowed, rank first in both rushing yards allowed and average gain per rush and — with Polamalu contributing a pair of interceptions and feeling fully healthy again after an injury-plagued 2009 campaign — are tied for second in turnover differential with a plus-7, behind the Jets at plus-8.
"They knew how important LeBeau was," the executive said. "They lost (Ken) Whisenhunt and (Russ) Grimm, but they were not going to lose LeBeau. He carries them.
"Philosophically, (LeBeau) runs a very different defense than Tomlin was running in Tampa Bay and Minnesota. The base is very different, but Tomlin has not looked to change anything. That was the best move he made, and I don't think he had a lot of choice in the matter.
"There is no one better at creating matchup havoc with overloaded gaps (than LeBeau). They disguise their blitz packages so well — it's very difficult to maintain protection."
On the offensive side of the ball, an old-school commitment to the run also reaped big-time dividends. With third-year pro Rashard Mendenhall averaging 102.8 yards per game — the third-best average in league behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Houston's Arian Foster — the Steelers rank ninth in rushing yards and 17th in time of possession despite being last in passing yards.
"Without Ben, the Steelers got back to Steelers football — establish the run first and play great defense," said one pro scout. "They have had to scale back the offense. They have not been playing with a quarterback they could trust. He (Roethlisberger) might have done the team a big favor. I thought he was solely winning games with his arm last year."
Now once again armed and ready, an understandably humbled Roethlisberger returns to action Sunday against the lowly Browns — a 2010 debut that figures to fortify his confidence moving forward.
By all accounts, Roethlisberger has worked diligently during his suspension to retain the form that led to a team-record 4,328 passing yards last year. During his suspension, he worked almost daily with his personal QB coach, George Whitfield, on his footwork, timing and throwing.
After having to separate from the team on Sept. 2 under the terms of the suspension, Roethlisberger threw almost daily to a collection of receivers at high school stadiums. In his first practice back with the Steelers last Tuesday, Roethlisberger looked sharp and showed no rustiness or lack of rhythm.
Clearly, the stage is set for Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to open up his entire playbook again.
"Big Ben creates plays," said the pro scout. "He is a little bit of a bonehead and he hangs on to (the ball) too much, but he can wing it now. The guy has won two Super Bowls. Having him back will be a huge boost to their offense.
"He'll beat you with his arm. He is tough. He gets the (crap) knocked out of him behind that line. It is not very good. But he still finds a way. Remember the TD he threw last year to beat Green Bay? He is clutch. It was a perfect back-shoulder throw, just like the one he threw to Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl."
After the Browns game, Roethlisberger and the Steelers face a pivotal four-game stretch, with three straight road games at Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati and a Nov. 14 home game against the always-tough Patriots.
With three-quarters of their season left and their big gun back in action, the Steelers' shot at Super Bowl glory is as good as any team's. Taking into account the Steelers' pedigree, it really was foolish to have thought otherwise.