PITTSBURGH – A season that was supposed to begin in disarray for the Pittsburgh Steelers is instead creating a bit of disbelief around the NFL.
They're this good, and Ben Roethlisberger isn't even playing yet?
Rather than the four-game suspension creating a major disadvantage for them, the Steelers (3-0) are embracing it as a means of proving they are about more than a single player — even one as accomplished and as attention-getting as Roethlisberger.
Clearly motivated by the chatter that their season might be ruined by the suspension, they've handled the adversity and are thriving in it.
One more victory and the Steelers will be off to their best start in 31 years — and Roethlisberger still won't have thrown a single pass.
If the AFC North rival Ravens, Bengals and Browns once wished Roethlisberger's suspension might last six games, they're probably glad now it's only four given the way the Steelers are playing without him.
"The league does not want us to be 4-0 with a mad Ben coming back, I'll tell you that," wide receiver Hines Ward said following a 38-13 rout of Tampa Bay on Sunday. "We are playing with a lot of confidence as a team — offensively, defensively, special teams. I know Ben right now is itching to hurry up and get back to be here with us."
Roethlisberger, barred from the team's practice building since Sept. 3, can rejoin his teammates after Sunday's game against Baltimore (2-1) at Heinz Field. No matter what happens against the Ravens, he'll be taking over a team that has gained respect around the league with its ability to shove aside a potentially huge distraction and play with a purpose and a sharp focus.
No matter who is playing.
"Just because Ben isn't here, he is not the whole team," linebacker James Harrison said. "He is a big part of this team of this team, no question, but he is not the whole team. He is not going to determine if we win or lose the game. The next guy in line is just a starter in waiting and that's how we look at everybody."
The next guy in line in this case was Charlie Batch, the mostly ignored quarterback who spent much of the spring and summer standing on the sideline. Fourth on the quarterback depth chart, he figured to be cut when the season started after the Steelers reacquired Byron Leftwich to start while Roethlisberger was out.
Instead, Batch unexpectedly got a chance to play when Leftwich was hurt in the final exhibition game and Dennis Dixon injured his left knee early in the 19-11 victory at Tennessee on Sept. 19. Batch, who had thrown only two passes since the final game of the 2007 season, responded by throwing for three touchdowns against Tampa Bay, two to second-year receiver Mike Wallace that covered more than 40 yards apiece.
Batch has started only three games in five seasons — and Sunday's start was his first since 2007 — yet has a combined eight touchdown passes in those starts.
Batch's wait between starts was longer than some NFL players' careers, yet he performed as if he had been in the lineup for years by completing 12 of 17 passes for 186 yards.
"I was just hoping to get an opportunity," said Batch, who never complained even as the Steelers effectively eased him out of the picture until needing him again. "For me, the one thing I didn't want to do was to come out and be that weak link. I wanted to go out and provide a spark and put this team in the end zone."
The 35-year-old Batch might have benefited by taking so few snaps and throwing so few passes during practices from April through August because his throwing arm looked as strong as it did when he was 25.
The offense also was much more in sync than it was with Dixon during a 15-9 overtime victory against Atlanta and in the one quarter Dixon played at Tennessee. While some veteran Steelers preferred that Batch start throughout Roethlisberger's suspension because of his superior throwing arm, coach Mike Tomlin said he's not second-guessing his decision to open the season with Dixon.
"Man, I don't get do-overs," he said. "I don't live in that world. I'll let you guys talk about that. Right now we are 3-0 and we are getting ready for Baltimore."
If the Steelers can beat Baltimore in Pittsburgh for the fifth straight time and the 10th time in their last 11 meetings there, they will be 4-0 for the first time since 1979, the season they won their fourth Super Bowl in six years.
"Nothing is impossible if we all do it together, and that's what we are doing," linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. "The team camaraderie is growing strong right now, and we believe in each other."