NFL

Steelers not looking around the Ben

Charlie Batch, once fourth-string, looked first-rate in keeping Pittsburgh unbeaten.
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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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Just a year and a half ago, in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, Ben Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes in the back corner of the end zone for the winning score with 35 seconds remaining in Super Bowl XLIII.

It was as dramatic and precise a moment as you will see in sports. The image of the outstretched Holmes, reaching for the ball with his toes touching the turf, is visual shorthand for a kind of perfection. On that last drive, Roethlisberger and Holmes – the game’s MVP – connected on four passes for 71 yards. The series established the Pittsburgh Steelers as more than another smash-mouth team. Even those who believe defense wins championships were obliged to regard Super Bowl XLIII as a glorious exception to the rule.

But Holmes, whose rap sheet includes arrests for marijuana possession, domestic violence and disorderly conduct, was traded to the Jets after violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Roethlisberger was suspended by the commissioner after allegations that he was a serial sexual predator. And the prognosticating classes spent the summer wondering how Pittsburgh could ever compete for the playoffs in a division that included the Bengals and the Ravens, whom they’ll meet Sunday.

Note that the Steelers will be slight favorites at Heinz Field. After winning in their return to Tampa on Sunday, they remain one of the NFL’s three unbeaten teams. What’s more, they won with a quarterback who, just a month or so ago, was their fourth-stringer.

The early season storylines have been dreadfully familiar: Brett Favre, Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, the Cowboys and J-E-T-S-All-The-Time. In other words, to this point, the league’s most deserving and least appreciated team is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Every narrative seems to revolve around its quarterback. The Steelers are no exception, as the season has already been framed in relation to Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension. But Pittsburgh may be different from the other teams, which is to say, still able to contend without its franchise quarterback.

“He is not the whole team,” linebacker James Harrison said of Roethlisberger the other night. “He is a big part of this team, no question, but he is not the whole team. He is not going to determine if we win or lose.”

Roethlisberger will be back soon enough. He’s one good game from redemption. Seems you can’t watch a ballgame these days without hearing a sermon on the matter. It’s said that Vick is now redeemed because he threw for three touchdowns on Sunday, that his supposed reformation as a passer is somehow linked to the reformation of his character. Perhaps it is.

Just the same, Charlie Batch also threw three touchdowns for Pittsburgh on Sunday. Has he, too, been redeemed? And if so, redeemed from what?

Is this merely a case, as occasionally happens, of good things happening to good guys? Or, heaven forbid, is there any real allegorical significance? Are the Steelers just a good football team?

It’s worth mentioning that Charlie Batch is from Homestead, Pa., part of a stretch of Pennsylvania sometimes referred to as “the cradle of quarterbacks.” These include Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Jim Kelly and George Blanda, who died Monday at 83.

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Batch lacks their pedigree, of course. At 35, he’s been a backup since signing with the Steelers in 2002, after the Lions had dumped him for Joey Harrington. His Steelers career began with him third on the depth chart behind Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox. In two games this season, Batch has already thrown more passes than he did in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2009 combined.

Still, he’s a hometown favorite, even without the good works his Best of the Batch foundation has done. He’s also all the Steelers had.

Byron Leftwich went down in the preseason. Dennis Dixon went down in the second game. If Batch had gone down, Mike Tomlin – already a front-runner for Coach of the Year – would probably have gone with receiver Antwaan Randle El at quarterback.

“The next guy in line is just a starter in waiting,” Harrison said. “That’s how we look at everybody.”

As it happened, the Steelers did just fine with Batch, who was 12 for 17 with three touchdowns and two interceptions on Sunday. He had some help, of course. Rashard Mendenhall – with 143 yards on 19 carries, and a season average 5.2 yards per carry – is the most egregiously under-mentioned back in the league.

And did I mention the defense? You can’t run on the Steelers. Ask Chris Johnson, who went for all of 34 yards a couple of Sundays ago. And you can’t really score on them, either. They’re allowing 11 points a game, best in the league.

“This is where we expected to be,” Batch said. “I know a lot of people on the outside did not believe that.”

Perhaps not. Still, it’s nice to know a good team can win, at least occasionally, without its bad guys.

Tagged: Jets, Steelers, Charlie Batch, Antwaan Randle El, James Harrison, Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes

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