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Steelers' Roethlisberger changes identity on, off field

I remember sitting in the courtroom in Milledgeville, Ga., in April 2010 listening to the local prosecutor say he didn't have enough evidence to press rape charges on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The prosecturor proceeded to reveal ugly detail after ugly detail of the incident that soiled Roethlisberger's image and got him suspended by the NFL for four games.

As Pittsburgh (9-3) gets set to host AFC North doormat Cleveland (4-8) on Thursday, things with Roethlisberger and the Steelers seem much more as they were before he brought shame and scrutiny on himself and the franchise.

It's not forgotten, but Roethlisberger is back to being the face of the Steelers.

The conversation as it pertains to football is about the Steelers: Can they nudge out the Ravens for the AFC North title despite being swept by Baltimore? The defense is getting back to what it's been, ranked first in the NFL and all, but is it really as dominant as last season?

Then there's Roethlisberger.

He's bounced back in persona to become the unquestioned leader of a team whose veterans, like Hines Ward, are nudging closer to retirement. Roethlisberger is having a strong season amid an identity change -- not only his, but also the offense.

Pittsburgh has become a big-play passing team that seems capable at any time of hanging 35 points on a team, as it did last Sunday against emerging AFC North rival Cincinnati. Roethlisberger is ranked ninth in the NFL in passing yards (3,246), completing 260 of 408 passes with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He's three touchdowns short of last season's total.

Wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown are emerging stars and the Steelers' offense ranks ninth in the NFL in passing (256 yards average) and 11th overall. The Steelers were 14th in total offense and passing offense last season.

Again, that mid-range ranking was with Roethlisberger missing the first four games for violating the league's player conduct policy after being investigated for rape in a small college town in central Georgia. It was the second time he'd been investigated on accusations of sexual misconduct, although he was never charged in either instance.

Roethlisberger got married before this season and several members of the organization attended the ceremony. It was viewed as a sign that Roethlisberger could start reshaping his image as someone who settled down personally and it spoke volumes that teammates, coaches and team executives were invited and shared in the celebration.

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Roethlisberger wasn't always the most beloved player in the locker room but his teammates seemed to have his back and still do. He's reciprocated by routinely answering the call when injured and being versatile enough to allow the Steelers to adjust to the more passer-friendly landscape.

The Steelers have four games remaining, playing Cleveland twice, St. Louis and San Francisco. There's a legitimate shot the Steelers could create space with the rest of the conference and snatch the top seed in the AFC. There's also a chance for Roethlisberger to put more distance from his past while giving the Steelers another shot at a Super Bowl.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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