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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Roethlisberger, Steelers give glimpse of what could be

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PITTSBURGH -- That was everything we've been waiting to see, wasn't it? The Pittsburgh Steelers demolished Cleveland 28-10 on Sunday to improve to 4-1 and provide us with the great team this 2010 NFL season has lacked. And boorish Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was a changed man -- humble, nice, downright likeable for a change.

Do I believe any of it?

No. Of course not. Not yet, anyway.

It's too soon to believe that the Steelers, with Roethlisberger throwing for 257 yards and three touchdowns in his 2010 debut, are the elite team we've been waiting to see emerge somewhere in the NFL. That was an elite performance by Pittsburgh, yes, but Cleveland fell to 1-5 with quarterback Colt McCoy making his NFL debut on Sunday. So let's hold off on the hyperbole for the Steelers.

Likewise, it's too soon to believe Roethlisberger is a new man after his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy. In the eyes of the law he's not a criminal -- he has never even been charged with a crime -- but in the eyes of America he's a jerk, or worse. He has been too immature for too long to be anointed a changed man after one game, so let's hold off on the hosannas for him.

But still ...

The Steelers could be a truly great team -- and this isn't a one-day thing, either. Without Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh won three of its first four games with a good running attack and a great defense. Two teams the Steelers defeated, Atlanta and Tampa Bay, entered Sunday with just one loss. They were 7-0 against everyone else, and 0-2 against the Steelers. And that was the Steelers without Roethlisberger, who has won two Super Bowls.

Now Roethlisberger's back -- and the Steelers can still run the ball (Rashard Mendenhall ran 27 times for 84 tough yards against Cleveland), and the Steelers can still play defense. James Harrison unleashed two brutal hits Sunday -- he knocked situational quarterback Josh Cribbs and receiver Mohamed Massaquoi out of the game with head injuries -- that might draw punishment from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and definitely sent a message to the rest of the league.

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"People are going to think twice about coming across the field on us," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "Wide receivers are going to see that."

Add Roethlisberger to Pittsburgh's defense and rushing attack, and this could be it. This could be greatness -- a rung above the really-goodness of New England, Baltimore, Atlanta and the New York Jets.

"Hey, you never know, but I like what I saw today," said Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El. "You saw how we played without Ben -- we were good -- but now he's on the field throwing it. Let's see what happens."

While we're watching, let's keep an eye on Roethlisberger, too. Is he different? Time will tell, and all we have is one game to go on. But it was an impressive game, and I don't mean his 112.7 passer rating. I mean his demeanor on the sideline, on the field, after the game.

Known for being aloof, Roethlisberger celebrated all four touchdowns with teammates long after the cameras were focused elsewhere, walking the length of the Steelers sideline to touch a knee or a shoulder of every player he could find. He went up to the punter. He went up to guys in street clothes. Roethlisberger, who used to approach nobody, was approaching everybody.

"You can tell he's humbled to be where he's at," said Steelers tackle Max Starks. "He's happy to be back. He appreciates it."

After the game, hundreds of Steelers fans gathered near the tunnel leading from the field to the Pittsburgh locker room. Roethlisberger was the last player off the field -- by several minutes, thanks to TV interviews -- but the crowd stayed. I watched, and not one of them left. They waited for Roethlisberger, and just like before and during the game, there wasn't a boo to be heard. Before he disappeared into the tunnel, Roethlisberger threw a towel into the crowd. It wasn't Mean Joe Greene sharing a Coke and a smile with a cute little ball boy, but it was a neat moment nonetheless.

CBSSports.com Grades
Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
C-
Rookie QB Colt McCoy performed well in his NFL debut, particularly considering his WRs are non-entities. Several individual players, including CB Eric Wright, prevented the Browns from remaining in the game. Poor tackling and an offense that has no quick-strike capability doomed them to their fifth defeat in six games.
By Marty Gitlin
RapidReports Correspondent
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
B
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians called a nice, balanced game with 35 runs and 31 passes. Ben Roethlisberger was a little rusty on his return, but still threw for 257 yards and three scores. The defense had two takeaways and was its usual dominant self.
By Brian Carson
RapidReports Correspondent

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About a half-hour later, Roethlisberger talked about the crowd reaction.

"Amazing," he said. "That was part of the emotion I was feeling. It put tears in my eyes, to hear them cheer like that."

Roethlisberger's press conference was played in the press box, and that last sentence literally drew skeptical laughter from a woman sitting near me.

"Put tears in my eyes," she said, mocking Roethlisberger, laughing at him.

Hey, that's fair. Skepticism? Roethlisberger has earned our skepticism. But for one day, he was a different guy. And this comes from someone -- me -- who has loathed Roethlisberger for years. When the Steelers won their season opener Sept. 12 against Atlanta, I used my story from Heinz Field to celebrate the fact that Pittsburgh won without Roethlisberger. Probably not my finest moment, but what're you going to do? I don't like the guy. Haven't liked him for years, even before he was accused of sexually assaulting two different women.

But I liked him Sunday. He didn't sneer at questions from the media like he often does. He smiled. He was harder on himself -- "Horrible throw," he said of his lone interception -- and more complimentary of teammates than in the past. This is what he said of Mendenhall:

"Watching him from a distance, watching him up close, he is emerging as a top-five back in this league," Roethlisberger said, "with the potential to be one of the elite, top two or three."

When Cribbs was knocked out cold by Harrison, Roethlisberger was the only Steeler to stand close enough to watch the Browns player get treatment on the field. He left the sideline to be there, talking to a few Browns while they waited and watched.

Don't ask me where the arrogant, aloof Roethlisberger went, or if he'll be back. Can't tell you. But as far as first steps go, this was a good one.

And as far as NFL teams go, this could be a great one.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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