- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 7, 2010

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Ben Roethlisberger loves to be the guy who gets his team out of trouble, throws the big touchdown pass, makes the play that changes a season.

Only this time, Roethlisberger can’t bail the Steelers out of a predicament he put them in. Instead of being the leader who rallies his teammates during tough times, he can’t even talk to them about football as he serves a four-game suspension for off-field misconduct.

His team captaincy? That’s gone, too.

The Steelers knew for months Roethlisberger would be absent when the season began, but the reality of his punishment struck them as they reported for practice this week and found his No. 7 locker vacant.

“We’ve been anticipating this moment for some time, planning and so forth,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “There’s not any last-minute adjustment. It’s just more about dealing with it.”

What they’re dealing with is an awkward, unenviable situation that could force the Steelers to adopt a late-season, win-or-else mentality in September.

The months of turmoil Roethlisberger created with his indiscretions ultimately may be viewed in the context of what the Steelers do during their month of uncertainty without him. Should they thrive with the playmaking Dennis Dixon at quarterback and get off to a fast start, the impact of Roethlisberger’s missteps may be relatively minimal.

Tomlin was even noncommittal when asked during a Sirius Radio interview if Roethlisberger immediately would become the starter if he returned to a surging team.

“I’m going to dodge that question, not even artfully,” Tomlin said.

However, if the Steelers flop with their No. 3 quarterback in charge _ No. 2 Byron Leftwich is injured and out _ Roethlisberger might be remembered as the man who brought down a season before it started.

“It’s very tough, kind of emotional,” Roethlisberger said before leaving the team. “I’ve just got to go do what I’ve got to do.”

The bigger question is what the Steelers will do without him.

Dixon, picked by Tomlin over the more experienced Charlie Batch to start Sunday against Atlanta, is fast, athletic and an exceptional runner. But the former Oregon star has started only one NFL game, and a championship-contending team almost never goes so far down its depth chart at quarterback to begin a season.

Mostly because of their quarterback quandary, the Steelers _ winners of 24 games the last two seasons _ find themselves as home underdogs against Atlanta.

“That’s good,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “We’re going to be underdogs all year, especially the first four games, with the uncertainty of who we have at quarterback. We play better as underdogs.”

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