Only captain's cameo for Big Ben

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The Steelers introduced the starting defensive lineup Saturday night, kept their franchise quarterback off the field except for a captain's cameo during the coin toss, and shoved off into a pivotal preseason as though all that ailed No. 7 was a tender August hamstring.

Except for a brief outburst by a tiny chorus of voices yelping "We Want Ben! We Want Ben!" 10 minutes after kickoff, the season's first studio audience displayed nothing but patience and understanding with Mike Tomlin's decision to save Roethlisberger for next week's appointment in New York, where he figured to get a highly acidic welcome in the best of circumstances.

So in other words, in his first appearance in black and gold since the Ides of Milledgeville, No. 7 got through another night on which no charges were filed, vocally or otherwise.

That settled, the Steelers went pretty smartly about the business of addressing Nagging Question No. 2, the matter of whether the 2010 edition would run the ball more effectively, more confidently, and to more meaningful impact than the previous playoff-free version.

If last night's second quarter against the Detroit Lions is any indication -- one of your bigger ifs, admittedly -- it appears they will. As of this morning anyway, it appears they're at least very earnest about it.

Of course, a lot of teams are going to look serious about running when they line up this season against the Lions, who are likely to come out of the exhibition round with eight new defensive starters from the club that turned in a sizzling 2-14 record a year ago, which is the least they can do. Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, describing that unit's predicament early in the week, put it this way:

"Last year was like musical chairs because I don't think we had enough guys to even walk out there."

Uh-huh. But isn't music chairs when you have too many guys and not enough ... ?

Hey, it's preseason for coaches too.

Rashard Mendenhall's night had already ended as the second quarter began, as Tomlin figured the man most responsible for the success of the ground game had had enough reps for this inaugural, even if five reps netted 2 yards and a comic fumble.

"Any time you fumble the ball or give up quarterback sacks and just miss assignments, for us, that's what we can't do," said Hines Ward when his shift had ended. "We can't have the Steelers beating the Steelers, so that's something we've got to work on during training camp and get better.

"And we will."

It wasn't until Isaac Redman entered the equation that the Steelers' offense began to rev, first with an 8-yard burst on first down and then, in the kind of third-and-2 on which Bruce Arians has almost reflexively spread the formation and put Roethlisberger in the shotgun, Redman carried it 4 tough yards for a first down.

After Redman lugged a Byron Leftwich screen 13 yards for another first down, a second third-and-2 presented itself and apparently Arians wasn't comfortable with another running play. He had Leftwich flip one to Frank Summers for a first down. But on second-and-10, Redman had his number called on a flash draw, bolted up the middle, spun away from Lions cornerback Eric King, and that 31-yard run electrified Heinz Field minutes before the lightning aborted the first half.

That run set up the Steelers' second field goal, the one that chopped Detroit's lead to 7-6, and Redman scored on the next possession as well, this time more in keeping with his Red Zone nickname. What would be the final possession before a drenching storm got built around a 51-yard strike from third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon to free agent wideout Arnaz Battle. Dixon then rolled right on a run-pass option with Mewelde Moore, tucked it and appeared to score at the right pylon, but an official review ruled him down some 18 inches short.

If you've never sat in a driving rain waiting out a replay review on whether the third-string quarterback scored in an NFL preseason game, well, you just don't know how to have a good time.

In the goal-line situation, Arians let 315-pound backup center Doug Legursky line up at fullback to the left of Redman, and an excellent push from the left side of the second offensive line -- tackle Tony Hills and guard Ramon Foster -- triggered the first Steelers touchdown since Playoff Elimination Day, Jan. 3 in Miami.

Big Ben, of course, watched all this from beneath a backward ball cap. His next Heinz Field appearance figures to be Sept. 2, and the one after that, the one that counts, hasn't really been scheduled. Probably Oct. 17. But maybe Nov. 14. You can't help but wonder if it'll too late to matter.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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