PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers are the only NFL team that, in essence, has two opening days.
The team opens Sept. 12 against Atlanta.
For Ben Roethlisberger, it won't open until Oct. 17 at the earliest.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
With Ben Roethlisberger out for at least four games, Flozell Adams and the Steeler line will be protecting Byron Leftwich.
The Steelers followed up a disappointing post-Super Bowl season with a calamitous offseason. Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, shamed himself and his team with his behavior in a Georgia nightclub, a night of bar-hopping that resulted in a sexual abuse allegation that wasn't prosecuted but did earn him a suspension.
Add in the Santonio Holmes can't-stay-out-of-trouble fiasco that led the Steelers to give him away for a fifth-round pick, and it's no wonder the Steelers couldn't wait to get back to football. Even if one of them must wait a lot longer than the others.
Now that the season is almost here, their problems aren't going away - even if Roethlisberger is. He'll be banished from all practices and games for at least a month, even if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell shortens his punishment from six games to four.
The suspension is forcing the Steelers to take the unprecedented step of devoting precious preseason time to preparing not one but two starting quarterbacks - Byron Leftwich to start the season, Roethlisberger to finish it.
Despite the unique circumstances, the Steelers' training camp was routine, almost dull, with the fans welcoming back Roethlisberger with open arms and clicking cameras rather the heated words that were directed his way five months ago. If the fans are angry that Roethlisberger's off-field actions will leave the Steelers without their franchise quarterback for a month, they're not showing it.
Maybe they will if the Steelers start 1-3 without him. Maybe they never will if they're 3-1, and Roethlisberger returns to lead a first-place team.
"It'll be good to get this behind me," Roethlisberger said.
Knowing the Roethlisberger won't be with them when they open against Atlanta, the Steelers are putting a greater emphasis on the running game after finishing an uncharacteristically low 19th and 22nd in rushing the last two seasons. That likely means new looks with multiple tight ends and more carries for Rashard Mendenhall, who ran for 1,108 yards last season.
Now the Steelers want to see more - more yardage, more big plays, more signs that Mendenhall can pick up key yards while leads are being protected in the fourth quarter.
Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu could help create those carries, too.
The Steelers' No. 5 ranking in overall defense last season was considered a failure for a team that was No. 1 in nearly every major statistical category during its 2008 championship season. Losing Smith, one of the NFL's top run-stuffing defensive ends, and an elite playmaker like Polamalu to injuries for most of last season were major factors in the falloff.
Polamalu and Smith might be the defense's two most irreplaceable players and, without them, the Steelers lost five times after leading during the fourth quarter. Remarkably, the Steelers (9-7) never trailed by more than seven points in any of their first 12 games, yet went only 6-6.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, thinks getting Polamalu and Smith back is like trading for two of the NFL's best players.
"Troy's the best at what he does," Smith said. "He's just a playmaker. It will be nice to have him out there, running around and doing crazy stuff."
To upgrade the leaky secondary that led to so many of those fourth-quarter breakdowns, the Steelers reacquired cornerback Bryant McFadden from Arizona to replace 2009 starter William Gay. Ike Taylor, the top cornerback, is in a contract year. The linebacking group might be the best in the league with LaMarr Woodley (13 sacks), James Harrison (10 sacks), James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons (7 sacks), and former starter Larry Foote is back after one season in Detroit.
As bad as the secondary was at times, special teams were worse. The Steelers yielded a league-high four kickoff return touchdowns, and in a five-game span, leading to the hiring of new assistant coach Al Everest. Will Allen (Bucs) and Arnaz Battle (49ers) were signed to upgrade the coverage units.
Offensively, Holmes will be replaced by Mike Wallace, a second-year receiver who is one of the NFL's fastest. He proved to be a deep threat last year playing mostly on passing downs - he averaged 19.4 yards on 39 catches - but, as Hines Ward said, playing every down is a much greater challenge.
The Steelers just hope to keep Leftwich on his feet while Roethlisberger is out. Roethlisberger was sacked 143 times the last three seasons, easily the most in the league, and he is more mobile than Leftwich.
Ward, at age 34, is 105 receptions away from 1,000 catches in his career. Tight end Heath Miller is coming off a 76-catch season and should take on an even larger role with Holmes gone.
The offensive line took a hit when right tackle Willie Colon was lost for the season in June with an Achilles' injury; former Cowboys Pro Bowl tackle Flozell Adams was signed to replace him. First-round pick Maurkice Pouncey was expected to play right guard this season but was dominant in camp at center and could bump two-year starter Justin Hartwig out of a job.
Jeff Reed is one of the 10 most accurate kickers in NFL history but, like Taylor, is in a contract year, and he isn't happy about it. Nor is he pleased that punter Daniel Sepulveda may handle kickoffs.
Once the season starts, no other team may be as dependent upon a quick start as the Steelers. If they struggle while Roethlisberger is out, they may be forced to play catch-up the rest of the way with a quarterback who hasn't taken meaningful snaps in a game since January. And don't expect any sympathy from the apparently upgraded Ravens and Bengals.
"That's OK," Ward said. "We like being the underdog. We have some of our best seasons when people aren't picking us."