Steelers look scary – and Big Ben hasn’t played

TAMPA, Fla. – The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers took the field at Raymond James Stadium, they walked away with their sixth Super Bowl title.

On Sunday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin exited the field again looking almost as exultant as that moment in 2009. Tomlin thrust his fists to the crowd and stared with a powerful glare after the Steelers improved to 3-0 after a 38-13 thrashing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The NFL season is only three weeks old, but Pittsburgh is once again playing like a champion and a prohibitive favorite.

Charlie Batch (left) and Hines Ward celebrate their second-quarter TD hookup.
(Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

And the Steelers don’t even have their two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger(notes) isn’t due to return to the starting lineup until Oct. 17, but he could be returning to a situation where the table is set.

This was hardly what anybody expected from the Steelers to this point.

As owner Dan Rooney, who took in his final game Sunday before heading back to his diplomat job in Ireland, walked through the locker room, he was asked about his team’s resiliency. Having run the team since 1975 and having been part of the team since he was born in 1932, Rooney has seen it all and isn’t wont to overreact.

“This is as much as adversity as I’ve seen, but these guys have picked [Roethlisberger] up, they really have,” Rooney said. “They’ve rallied together as good as I’ve seen.”

While it’s absurd to think the Steelers will maintain this pace over a 16-game season and into the playoffs, they punctuated their start with a dominant victory Sunday. If nothing else, Pittsburgh showed what it’s capable of and that should be scary to the rest of the league.

Of course, you can qualify this by saying it’s early, that Tampa Bay isn’t as good as its 2-0 start. But this performance was decisive and thorough. Moreover, it comes in the face of those who thought this season was going to be a struggle to make up for the first four games of Roethlisberger’s suspension. A month ago, most analysts thought the Steelers would be lucky to go 2-2.

“We all heard that stuff and that’s fine,” veteran wide receiver Hines Ward(notes) said. “But we have a lot of people in this locker room who understand how to play together and get things done when things aren’t exactly how we want them to be.”

Leading the way is Tomlin, who has made it his personal mission to tap into every motivational tactic he can find to make his team believe it can be great, even without Roethlisberger.

This week, Tomlin threw little barbs in every direction. With 35-year-old quarterback Charlie Batch(notes) getting his first start since 2007, Tomlin harped on the old guys. Batch took over for injured backup Dennis Dixon(notes).

“Yeah, he kept saying, ‘Don’t be a declining veteran,’ ” said linebacker James Farrior(notes), one of Pittsburgh’s 17 guys on the roster who are 30 or older. Farrior is one of three (Batch and Flozell Adams(notes) are the others) 35-year-olds, which is downright ancient in this game. “Of course he’s talking to me and Hines and Aaron [Smith] and Brett [Keisel]. Most of us older guys, that just goes in one ear and out the other.”

Really? Because it sure seems like the Steelers are playing with a “We’ll prove you wrong” mentality.

“Anybody who says they predicted we would be 3-0, they’re lying,” Ward said. “We know that, but that’s OK.”

It also seems to be OK if the Steelers play make-believe. After the game, Tomlin went so far as to call Raymond James Stadium a “hostile” environment. When a reporter pointed out that almost half the stadium seemed to be wearing black-and-gold rather than the home pewter-and-red, Tomlin admitted that he occasionally indulges in fantasy.

“We like to get painted in a corner and I was probably looking for it,” Tomlin said with a sly grin. “We like to use the us-against-the-world mentality.”

Wallace pulls in his 46-yard first-half TD.
(Kim Klement/US Presswire)

With Batch starting, the logical thinking was that the Steelers would again keep things close to the vest, particularly after his first pass of the game was intercepted. Instead, Pittsburgh played aggressive. On their third possession, the Steelers opened with a double reverse to wide receiver Mike Wallace(notes) for a loss of a yard, then Batch went deep to Wallace for a 46-yard touchdown pass.

Two possessions later, the Steelers kept the playbook wide open as Batch again went deep to Wallace. Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib(notes) missed an interception and tipped the ball to Wallace to give the Steelers a 21-6 lead.

At that point, the game was basically over. The Steelers grinded out a 79-yard drive to finish the first half with a 28-6 lead and then spent the rest of the game hammering young Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman(notes). He was sacked on each of Tampa Bay’s first two possessions of the second half and the third possession ended with Keisel returning a tipped interception 79 yards for a score to make it 38-6.

In three games, the Steelers have forced 10 turnovers. That works out to 53.3 for the season, which is unreasonable to expect.

That’s where the return of Roethlisberger comes in. While he is sure to get plenty of criticism for his off-field behavior, there is no doubting his talent. Roethlisberger is a dynamic passer, even if he is somewhat unconventional. He has twice posted a season quarterback rating of more than 100 in the past three years.

And he’s going to be driven.

“If we can go 4-0 without Ben and we know what he can do once he gets back out there, we’re going to be fine,” Ward said. “I know Ben, he’s disappointed because he’s not with us, but he’ll do fine when he gets back to our team. He had a great training camp, really flawless, really improved his reads.”

Left tackle Max Starks(notes), who has been with the Steelers for seven seasons, including two Super Bowls, likes what he sees, even without Roethlisberger.

“I really think this is one of the two best teams we’ve had since I got here,” Starks said. “Really, I believe that right now and we still haven’t gotten Ben back.”

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Sep 26, 2010