Roethlisberger makes Steelers league's elite

Posted Oct. 18, 2010 @ 3:37 a.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

It took a few quarters for Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger to knock the rust off following his four-game suspension. His first drive ended in an interception as he struggled to get in sync with his receivers, untimely firing behind Mewelde Moore right into the hands of rookie CB Joe Haden. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians took his time getting Roethlisberger acclimated, keeping the ball in Rashard Mendenhall's hands early on and not unleashing the playbook.

But for a quarterback who missed the first four games, Roethlisberger appeared very comfortable in the pocket, creatively sidestepping the rush and moving outside the pocket to locate receivers downfield. His footwork and throwing mechanics appeared more consistent. The protection was weak as usual, but he was never rattled, throwing the ball away while in the grasp of defenders and connecting with Mike Wallace for a precisely placed TD pass despite getting blindsided by Matt Roth as soon as he let it go.

He came out in the second half, drilling a pass to Hines Ward on a deep out, connecting with Wallace down the sideline out of his own endzone and dropping a ball in the bucket to Heath Miller. Roethlisberger can stick the ball into tight spots like few quarterbacks can, even throwing off his back foot, and his presence gave the Steelers' offense an explosive downfield element that it lacked the first four games.

The Steelers were one of the league's bona fide contenders when they were relying on the power of Mendenhall and the strategic brilliance of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. With a newly focused, highly motivated, hungry Roethlisberger back in the fold, the Steelers set the gold standard. 

• The Lions may have only one win in their first six games, and narrowly fell again to the Giants this week, but they have competitively battled in every game this season and have shown big strides in defeat. Given that they could just as easily be 5-1 as they are 1-5 despite being relegated to using their No. 3 quarterback, head coach Jim Schwartz should be commended.

Ahmad Bradshaw has great run instincts and vision, but it is how angry he runs that stands out the most and has allowed him to squeeze the playing time of Brandon Jacobs, whom the Lions slammed twice for no gain on consecutive carries at the goal line. The Giants could be better served sticking with Bradshaw near the goal ine as he runs with determination that Jacobs does not and more easily could fit into tight spaces.

• Rams rookie WR Danario Alexander, signed from the practice squad to replace the injured Mark Clayton, showed promise by laying out to grab his first NFL TD catch and pacing the Rams in receptions in his first showing on the active roster. There were scouts who stamped first-round grades on the lean, long-limbed, athletic pass catcher. It was concern about a knee that required four surgeries in college that left him undrafted.

• Too many defenseless ballcarriers were recipients of devastating hits, with Dunta Robinson's collision with DeSean Jackson being the worst of the lot. Patriots S Brandon Meriweather can expect to receive a hefty fine for propelling himself into the air to strike an airborne Todd Heap. But the most collective damage was done by Steelers OLB James Harrison, who knocked former Kent State teammate Josh Cribbs out of the game and left WR Mohammad Massaquoi dazed. There is not a more powerfully explosive thumper in the game pound for pound than the compactly built, nail-driving Harrison.

• The Redskins did a great job of disguising fronts, pressure and coverages and kept Peyton Manning unusually guessing and out of sync early on, as they continually brought defenders, overloaded one side of the line and let their defensive line float without a single hand in the dirt. The result — Manning was quick to get rid of the ball and threw two bad balls in the first 10 minutes of the game that Carlos Rogers could have intercepted if his hands were not made of stone.

• Dolphins weak-side pass rusher Cameron Wake gave the Packers' offensive line fits, especially clutching rookie ORT Bryan Bulaga, who was filling in for the injured Mark Tauscher, as Wake consistently ripped off the edges using his outstanding first-step quickness. Big questions surrounded the Fins' pass rusher after Joey Porter was cut and Jason Taylor was allowed to walk, but Bill Parcells apparently knew what he had in the athletic former CFL standout, who has 4.6-type speed to burn the edges. Combined with high-motor rookie OLB Koa Misi, the Dolphins' pass rush has been better than expected.

• For a rookie undrafted free agent, Saints RB Chris Ivory has done a very solid job filling in for a depleted backfield and has the looks of a poor man's Pierre Thomas — solid in every area, running, catching and blocking. He is a very competitive, hard runner who gave the Saints much-needed balance in their offense against the Buccaneers. Credit Sean Payton and the Saints' coaching staff for being status-blind in their assessment of talent.

• The Broncos-Jets matchup featured two of the game's top cornerbacks, and both were challenged by big receivers. Braylon Edwards beat Champ Bailey for a TD on a post pattern early in the contest, and Broncos rookie WR Demaryius Thomas even more impressively outstretched in the endzone over the top of a well-positioned Darrelle Revis to snare a TD catch. When Thomas has been healthy, he has proven to be a dangerous weapon and is loaded with upside.

• If Chargers OLB Shawne Merriman can pass a physical before Tuesday, he could be playing with his choice of teams as an unrestricted free agent, but since returning from an NFL-mandated suspension two years ago, he has not been the same player and may not field the type of interest he anticipates — or be able to make the type of impact a team hopes.

• Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson could make a follies film for the way he helicoptered over the top of Texans RB Arian Foster late in the fourth quarter with the Texans driving on their final come-from-behind, game-winning drive. Nonetheless, the way Johnson was able to land on his feet after cartwheeling in the air speaks to his great athletic ability. He has stepped up in his game this season under the direction of Romeo Crennel.

• Chiefs QB Matt Cassel did not need a lot of time to heave the ball downfield on the game's final snap after driving within the 45-yard line, but he never had a chance to set his feet and give the Chiefs one last chance. The Texans only rushed three in a prevent look, but DLE Antonio Smith ran right past a slow-reacting Barry Richardson and flushed Cassel out of the pocket into the arms of Amobi Okoye. An average offensive line, with a 37-year-old center and a swinging gate at right tackle, can be schemed with chip help to keep Cassel vertical more often than not, but the Chiefs need to invest more in their offensive line to have a chance beyond December.

• Patriots C Dan Koppen has been not only one of the most consistent centers in football, but categorically one of the most steady offensive linemen across the league. Yet when it came to matching up with the Ravens Haloti Ngata, he was very overmatched, as Ngata simply swatted him aside on his way to Tom Brady. Ngata's ability to dominate has shown up each week.

• Athletic Redskins OTs Trent Williams and Jammal Brown did as fine a job containing Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as any pair of bookends in the NFL, able to consistently handle one-on-one assignments and keep Donovan McNabb relatively unscathed.

• Colts CB Jerraud Powers has played exceptionally well for a second-year performer. He is extremely smart and technically sound and is seldom out of position.

• Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, a week after getting shellacked by the lowly Lions, found more ways to create pressure and was aggressive dialing up blitz packages to rattle the quick-triggered Philip Rivers, and it worked very well in an upset win over the Chargers.