What seemed like a death knell for the 2010 season of the Pittsburgh Steelers will end up as their salvation.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended April 22 for being in violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy after two sexual assault allegations that, while not prosecuted by law enforcement, were deemed unacceptable by commissioner Roger Goodell.
Less than 10 months later, Roethlisberger leads the Steelers into Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers at Cowboys Stadium.
Rather than being debilitated by Roethlisberger's actions, the Steelers instead rediscovered their personality in a way that will deliver their seventh Super Bowl win in eight attempts when they beat the Green Bay Packers 23-17 Sunday.
In going 9-7 in 2009, the Steelers strayed from their Steel City roots and got caught up in the arms race that is the NFL in this age of rules that favor the passing game.
On the heels of a 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, Pittsburgh became more of a passing team. The Steelers threw 536 passes in '09 and ran the ball 428 times. Roethlisberger threw for a franchise record 4,328 yards -- nearly 600 yards more than any Pittsburgh quarterback had passed for in a single season.
When Pittsburgh played Green Bay on Dec. 20, 2009, Roethlisberger completed 29 of 46 passes for 503 yards and three touchdowns, including a 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace as time expired.
Aaron Rodgers was nearly Roethlisberger's equal in that game, completing 26 of 48 passes for 383 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a magnificent regular-season duel that would have rivaled Joe Montana-John Elway in 1994 had the two quarterbacks had a similar pedigree.
Pittsburgh won 37-36, but the victory was hardly indicative of the kind of hard-nosed football associated with the franchise.
With Rodgers entering Sunday's game as the NFL's hottest quarterback, a replay of those fireworks could take place despite the quality of the defenses involved. But the Steelers have evolved since the last meeting, mostly because Big Ben got punished for being Bad Ben. Ultimately, Pittsburgh became a better team because of it.
With Roethlisberger out for the first quarter of the season, the Steelers looked merely to survive. Skeptics feared a 1-3 start was a possibility. Pittsburgh faced a difficult opener at home against Atlanta, road games at Tennessee and Tampa Bay and a home game against Baltimore.
With Dennis Dixon (San Leandro High) opening the season as the starter, Pittsburgh scaled back the passing game, ran the ball with Rashard Mendenhall and relied on its championship-level defense to survive.
The Steelers beat the Falcons 15-9 behind Dixon, who went out for the season with a knee injury in Week 2. That gave way to Charlie Batch, who joined Pittsburgh in 2002 and had started exactly four games.
Batch finished off a 19-11 win over Tennessee; the Steelers blew out the Bucs 38-13; and went toe-to-toe with Baltimore before falling 17-14 to finish 3-1 without Roethlisberger.
In those games, Mendenhall rushed for 411 yards on 89 carries, and when Roethlisberger returned, the Steelers had an offense of real balance. They finished with 479 pass attempts and 471 running plays.
At their best, the Steelers are about running the ball and stopping the run. This year, they have out-rushed 16 of their 18 opponents.
Running the ball and stopping it also has been a critical factor for Super Bowl champions in general. The team with the most rushing yards has won 36 of 44 Super Bowls, and the team with the most rushing attempts is 38-5-1.
Barring a big Green Bay lead early, the Steelers will have the most rushing yards and attempts, because doing so is a big part of who they are.
Expect offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to be stubborn with the run, because the Packers love to play a lot of nickel defense as a way to free up cornerback Charles Woodson. The best way to attack schemes with extra defensive backs is on the ground.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has no such concerns. Rodgers will pass, then pass some more. He'll do some damage because he's an elite quarterback at the top of his game.
But he'll also have the entire game on his shoulders, whereas Roethlisberger will be asked only to convert the occasional backbreaking first down while being helped with a more balanced attack.
At some point, the Steelers will force a mistake or two that either scores or sets up a touchdown. They'll win a taut struggle borne of a foundation put in place in early September while learning how to play without Roethlisberger.
Contact Jerry McDonald at email@example.com.