- Associated Press - Thursday, October 14, 2010

As long as he doesn’t overthink it, this should be easy.

Ben Roethlisberger returns to the starting lineup Sunday in Pittsburgh somehow still leading a charmed existence. He’s back after from a four-game suspension that Commissioner Roger Goodell dished out for a booze-fueled birthday party during which Roethlisberger embarrassed himself, his family, team, town and the NFL.

And remember: Had charges been filed, things could have turned out much worse. But Roethlisberger has been nothing lately if not lucky.

Back in March, when police were investigating the second allegation of sexual misconduct against him in less than two years, Tiger Woods’ escapades were still dominating the news cycle. This week, Brett Favre’s alleged shenanigans pushed Roethlisberger’s return so far down the page readers would have to scan the small type in “Transactions” to know he was even eligible.

Better still, the Steelers roared out of the starting gate at 3-1, having rediscovered their running game and relying on a defense that never went anywhere. On top of that, a well-rested Roethlisberger makes his 2010 debut against a Cleveland team that’s overmatched, beat up and starting Colt McCoy at quarterback. He’s never thrown a pass in a real NFL game, let alone against the Steelers' heat-seeking blitz packages.

So the last thing Roethlisberger needs to do is call much attention to himself. But just in case, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin should close his pregame speech by looking straight into his quarterback’s eyes and saying, “Just don’t screw this up.”

That shouldn’t be a problem. While only Roethlisberger knows whether he’s a changed man, at least he’s had the good sense to lay low.

The Steelers coach, old-school ownership and fan base were plenty aggravated in March, but by the time summer rolled around, Roethlisberger’s transgressions were largely forgotten. He got a warm reception during training camp and the exhibition season, and he’s done nothing to cool it off since.

He’s piled up extra-credit hours of community service and gone out of his way in the locker room to cultivate teammates who fell outside his previously tight circle of friends. Roethlisberger has even been saying all the right things _ about chewing his fingernails to the nubs while watching games, and how once he gets back at the controls, “We don’t want to force anything.”

“That,” he added, “is going to be key for me.”

Besides, it’s not as though Steelers fans are expecting much, at least not right away. After a month of watching Charlie “He’s Still Around?” Batch and Dennis “Who?” Dixon impersonate a quarterback, most of what Roethlisberger has to do is hand the ball to Rashard Mendenhall and get out of the way.

The day Goodell announced the suspension, the question was whether the Steelers would be competitive without him. Now the question is whether adding Roethlisberger makes them good enough to outdistance the Ravens and the rest of the tough AFC and go deep into the postseason.

The impulse might be to try to prove that Sunday, given the Browns’ struggling secondary and the fact that the Steelers’ passing game has nowhere to go but up. They’re languishing near the bottom of the ratings and Roethlisberger is not only healthy and rested, he’s coming off the best throwing season of his career.

Yet the 4,328 yards he compiled last season weren’t enough to get the Steelers into the playoffs. So far, their success emphasizing running and defense suggests that even with Roethlisberger back, striking the right balance will be more important than ever.

“We’re going to take what they give us,” Roethlisberger said this week, referring to the Browns, suggesting he knows the party line. “If they’re loading up the box, we will try to throw it. If they’re sitting back, we will run the ball.”

Then again, Tomlin must know that impulse control was never Roethlisberger’s strong suit. How much that has changed might have a lot to say about how much slack the coach allows him. Either way, Tomlin sounded prepared to handle that for him.

“We’ve got one standard here and it’s not graded on a curve: The standard is winning,” he said in a midweek radio interview.

“Guys like Ben _ competitors _ playing football is like breathing to them. I really think he’s going to get back in and get about his business. That’s what he does, what he loves. He’d do it for nothing.

“So,” Tomlin concluded, “I’m a little less concerned about that then one might think.”


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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