Will Steeltown survive without Big Ben?

How bad will the Steelers miss Roethlisberger? We'll start to find out on Sunday when the Atlanta...

How bad will the Steelers miss Roethlisberger? We'll start to find out on Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons visit Pittsburgh and have to stop Dennis Dixon instead of Big Ben. (ROSS D. FRANKLIN/Reuters)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:33 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Troy Polamalu may have had the most sensible answer of the tumultuous Steelers off-season.

The Ben Roethlisberger saga -- from the moment Big Bad Ben was alleged to have sexually assaulted a college girl six months ago, to the dawn of the 2010 season -- has covered all the bases.

From outrage at his piggish frat-boy ways, to debate at the NFL-imposed six-game suspension (since reduced to four) to what it means to the Steelers, there has been no shortage of opinion and debate.

But as opening Sunday approaches in this football-first town, the moral implications are starting to get upstaged by the sporting ones.

How bad will the Steelers miss Roethlisberger?

We'll start to find out on Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons visit Heinz Field and have to stop third-string QB Dennis Dixon rather than the guy who won two of the past four Super Bowls.

"Honestly, there's only one way to find out," Polamalu said following the Steelers practice at their South Side headquarters.

"I've never been one to predict anything or make any bold statements.

"We will find out how good we are through a 16-game schedule. That's the only really fair way to look at it."

If Roethlisberger is brash and impulsive, Polamalu is sometimes seen as the Steelers conscience.

A quiet, measured leader, his absence from the defence for the majority of the previous season was a big reason the Steelers missed the playoffs.

Now that the playmaking safety is healthy, at least the Steelers have one less question.

"It wasn't like we were horrible last year, but that's behind us," the veteran all-pro said. "It will be exciting to see how this season turns out for us."

While it's true that football is a game of instant gratification and having your starting quarterback out for a quarter of the season is an issue, the Steelers may not see it quite this way.

They are a team prone to hot streaks in recent seasons, suggesting they can ride out whatever storm might arise in Big Ben's absence. In their first Super Bowl win this decade, they won four in a row to squeak into the 2005 playoffs.

Roethlisberger wasn't suspended that year, but he did miss four games due to injury -- so the Steelers have managed without him.

Last year, they defended their most recent Super Bowl victory in opposite fashion. After a 6-2 start, they suffered a five-game losing streak before missing the playoffs altogether.

That has raised questions about their defence and with receiver Santonio Holmes gone and a rookie starting at centre, the absence of Big Ben isn't the only uncertainty on offence.

That they have to find a way to get back on track without their starting quarterback won't make life easier, obviously. Nor does it have to be a death sentence.

"(Dixon) has been around and in the room on a good football team in some big moments and preparing for big moments," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I'd imagine he's going to call on all of that experience."

And in the big picture that the Steelers favour, one week won't make or break it.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca / on twitter@longleysunsport


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