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Old 07-29-2009, 05:19 PM   #1
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Default Distractions loom in Pittsburgh as Steelers, Big Ben start camp

Distractions loom in Pittsburgh as Steelers, Big Ben start camp
By Nate Davis, USA TODAY

PITTSBURGH Just two weeks ago, there was little reason to worry about the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2009 season.

The Super Bowl XLIII champions lost only two starters in the offseason. No major medical or contractual issues were lingering. Heck, with the Steelers' successfully completed quest to "win one for the other thumb" the club's record sixth Super Bowl ring perhaps its biggest challenge was to come up with a catchy slogan to mark their next title drive.

Maybe "The Extra Point" or "Pittsburgh is Seventh Heaven."

But any pursuit of Lombardi Trophy No. 7 will temporarily take a backseat to Pittsburgh's most famous No. 7, Ben Roethlisberger.

Nevada casino worker Andrea McNulty filed a civil lawsuit against the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback July 17, accusing him of rape.

Roethlisberger vehemently denied the allegations six days later. He contended that the "false and vicious allegations are an attack on my family and on me" while saying he had never forced himself on any woman.

"I'm gonna fight to protect my family and my reputation," Roethlisberger added in a brief news conference, concluding, "I have an obligation to our fans, to my teammates, to my coaches and everyone in the organization to remain focused on the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I will do that. The allegations against me are reckless and false. I am confident that the truth will prevail."

Though any speculation to the suit's outcome is decidedly premature, the Steelers hope the truth will prevail in Roethlisberger's favor. If not, they could face a predicament similar to their predecessors as AFC champions. The New England Patriots played valiantly in 2008 after a 16-0 regular season in 2007, but they could not manage a playoff return after reigning league MVP Tom Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener.

At the very least, Roethlisberger will face a lot of questions even though he doesn't plan to discuss his case in the media. But as coach Mike Tomlin presciently acknowledged at the team's final offseason workouts in June, distractions are inevitable.

"If you are going to be good, distractions are a part of it," said Tomlin, heading into Year 3 as coach. "I am more concerned about embracing that and dealing with it and performing in the midst of it as opposed of being resistant to it.

"We have the desire to be a good team, a consistently good team, a world championship-caliber team. You have to acknowledge some attention, some potential distractions come with that."

But if the commissioner or the courtroom takes Roethlisberger off the field in 2009, could backups Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon do a reasonable impersonation of Matt Cassel? The former Patriots stand-in guided the team to 11 wins if not the tiebreaker New England required for a postseason return.

"I think they're in a good spot if it unfortunately ends up that way," NFL Network analyst Charles Davis says of the Steelers.

Batch has been an able understudy over the years, winning two starts in place of injured Roethlisberger during the team's march to the Super Bowl XL title in the 2005 season. Batch also won the '06 opener as Big Ben worked his way back from an infamous motorcycle crash and an emergency appendectomy.

But Batch is 34 and missed last season with a broken collarbone.

Batch might not have been on the roster if the Steelers had kept Byron Leftwich from signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But could Dixon, who has thrown one NFL pass, offer more upside and be better able to engineer a run like that of Cassel, who also provided opponents with little NFL game film before he took the reins from Brady?

"If there's one place that understands how to utilize a guy's talents and use him, it's Pittsburgh," says Davis, who compares Dixon to former Steelers Pro Bowl quarterback Kordell Stewart.

"(Dixon's) a quarterback, not a gimmick guy," stresses Davis, who scouted him before the 2008 draft and believes Oregon likely would have won the national championship if Dixon had not hurt his knee late in 2007. "As far as him being a pro quarterback and stepping up in pocket (and) making reads and throws, don't rule him out."

But at this juncture, neither Roger Goodell nor a judge or jury seems to be anywhere near rendering rulings on Roethlisberger's case.

And that's good news for a team that seems otherwise loaded and reloaded.

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, a first-rounder in 2007, replaces Larry Foote on a defense that was tops in the NFL in 2008 and arguably one of the finer units in league annals, some major lapses against Arizona's Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald in the second half of Super Bowl XLIII notwithstanding.

Cornerback William Gay is likely the team's only other new starter, and he and Timmons have the look of upgrades.

The Steelers also get an infusion of first-round talent in the backfield and in the trenches. Their top pick from 2008, tailback Rashard Mendenhall, returns from a broken shoulder blade that limited him to four games as a rookie. He should bring added juice to a running game that atypically ranked 23rd in '08. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers' newest first-rounder, Evander "Ziggy" Hood, who played defensive tackle at Missouri, should bring needed relief inside and out on the team's three-man front.

"I like where they are. They have an understanding of how we do business here," Tomlin says of his youngsters. "We held those guys in high regard when we drafted them. That's why we drafted them where we drafted them."

And don't forget the contributions of another former first-rounder not named Roethlisberger, who was the Steelers' No. 1 pick in 2004. Santonio Holmes, the Super Bowl MVP and the Steelers' top selection in 2006, is ready for the big stage entering his fourth season, a stage the team seems equally equipped for.

"If Pittsburgh doesn't have a season that doesn't put them in a contending spot," Davis says, "it'd be a big surprise."
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