I was preparing to write a glowing column about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- in which I would have nominated him for the MVP Award -- when he was sacked by Kansas City Chiefs rusher Tamba Hali in the third quarter of Monday night's matchup between the Chiefs and Steelers. Roethlisberger landed on his right shoulder and had to miss the rest of the game -- and might be out for an extended stretch of the season. However severe the injury is revealed to be, it could not have come at a worse time for Big Ben and the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has done a great job all season dealing with injuries to key players at critical positions, but losing Roethlisberger for a significant amount of time would be too tough to overcome, in large part because Big Ben has been the glue that has held this team together. Despite playing with an injury-riddled line and backfield, Roethlisberger had been able to make the Steelers' offense function at a high level, making key plays with his feet, arm and mind -- which is why I believed he was an MVP candidate.
I laugh whenever I hear football fans tell me that a potentially good quarterback would play better with an improved supporting cast. In reality, a true star quarterback will elevate the play of those around him. For an example of this, look no further than the Indianapolis Colts, who have been lifted to a 6-3 record by Andrew Luck. Big Ben was working similar magic in Pittsburgh. How many other quarterbacks do you think would be able to play behind that porous Steelers offensive line? Not many. As John Madden once said, "Winning is a great deodorant" for a team's problems; the same could be said about elite quarterbacks.
Roethlisberger was able to carry the Steelers because the veteran had been playing a more mature version of his game. He had cut down on his interceptions and cut down on the desperate throws; it appeared he'd learned to play with a sense of calmness. This is not meant as a knock on the Roethlisberger of the past; rather, I see Big Ben as a great quarterback who was able to grow, and come to better understand his role within the offense. He was still able to make plays down the field, still able to move around in the pocket and create problems for opponents, but he seemed to know when to take a chance and when to throw the ball away.
A closer look at his stats supports the idea of a more mature Roethlisberger. Before his injury Monday, Roethlisberger was averaging just 7.2 yards per attempted pass, the second-lowest number of his career. In the past, that would have meant the Steelers' offense was sputtering. But he's already thrown 17 touchdown passes this season; the relatively low average and high success rate suggest he had come to realize he didn't have to hit a three-run homer every time he let go of the football; he seemed to have finally learned that less can sometimes mean more. Big Ben is like a free-swinging slugger who suddenly discovered he could hit for average while retaining the ability to launch the long ball.
The Steelers are set to face the Baltimore Ravens, who lead them by one game in the AFC North, on Sunday, the first of two showdowns with their divisional rivals over the next three weeks. This is a must-win game for Pittsburgh; if he can, Big Ben might have to create his own Willis Reed moment and come out of the tunnel to play hurt.
If he can't, will Pittsburgh still be able to pull out a victory? As Rocco told Michael Corleone when asked about the possibility of killing Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II: "Difficult, not impossible." Beating the Ravens without Big Ben would be a challenge, but the Steelers can do it, as long as their running game is strong, their defense plays great, they control field position and they keep replacement quarterback Byron Leftwich from making critical mistakes.
The Steelers must keep Leftwich from having to attempt tough throws; they'll have to use their running game to keep him from having to drop back more than 20 times in any game. Without Big Ben, they'll have to grind out wins, and can forget about being involved in any more high-scoring affairs. Leftwich's lack of mobility in the pocket will also expose the Steelers' offensive line. However, Baltimore hasn't shown it can consistently rush the passer this season, which helps Pittsburgh.
The defense will have to step up and play even better than it's been playing over the past four weeks. During that stretch, the Steelers allowed a total of just 62 points and less than 300 yards per game, holding two of their opponents to less than 200 yards; the unit seemed to be hitting its stride at the right time. Now, though, the defense will have to crank it up a notch if Big Ben is out for a while. Without him, their offense will be less likely to win the time-of-possession battle, meaning the defense will be on the field for more than the 25 minutes per game it's been averaging this season.
The Steelers are mentally tough and have overcome many injuries. But they'll have a difficult time surviving any kind of significant interruption to Roethlisberger's MVP-caliber season.
THINGS I LOVED
I loved Chris Ivory's power, nasty attitude and tackle-breaking ability. The tough running back carried the New Orleans Saints past the Atlanta Falcons for their second straight victory on Sunday. Ivory can set the tempo for that team and help keep its defense off the field.
I loved that the Houston Texans were able to win, even though everything wasn't perfect. They went to Soldier Field, dealt with the harsh elements and found a way to beat the Chicago Bears. Preparing for the weather late in the season is critical. However, the Texans might not have to play any bad-weather games come playoff time; it appears they'll have home-field advantage and be hosting, not traveling. Of the seven games Houston has left, just four are against teams with winning records (they face the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings once and the Indianapolis Colts twice). Unless the Texans really fall off, the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC will go through Houston this year.
I've really loved watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play this year. Most fans cannot name half of the Bucs' starting lineup on either side of the ball, because the team has been ravaged with injuries. But the Bucs keep playing hard and keep playing the whole game. Coach Greg Schiano is doing an incredible job, and has the Bucs in the playoff conversation. I've enjoyed watching the squad in Tampa in 2012 as much as I hated watching it in 2011.
THINGS I HATED
I hated how the Oakland Raiders handled offense, defense and the kicking gameagainst the Baltimore Ravens. The Raiders mishandled every aspect of that game. Everyone in the NFL knew Oakland was facing a huge rebuilding project, but Sunday's performance must make everyone wonder how long it will take to put things right. The Raiders looked like the Raiders of old, tying a franchise record for points allowed. Ouch.
I hated how the New York Jets' offense -- and not just Mark Sanchez -- played. I realize the Jets have major talent issues on both sides of the ball, but this offense is still tough to watch, from design to execution. The Jets gave the boot to former coordinator Brian Schottenheimer last year, but has his replacement, Tony Sparano, made them better? Take a look at the Jets roster from three years ago. Since then, every time they've lost a player, the Jets have failed to replace him with someone of equal or better ability, and this team has steadily declined over that period. Reality had better set in for head coach Rex Ryan, who actually thinks this is the best team he has coached.
I hated that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was hurt, but with that poor offensive line, it was just a matter of time. No one could have withstood the pounding Vick's taken -- nor could anyone have withstood the lack of protection brought about by the Eagles' play calling. Vick isn't perfect, but the Eagles' problems go beyond him. Much like the Jets, the Eagles have just gotten worse over the past two years.
THINGS ON MY MIND
» Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder both played better Sunday -- and they had to, if their teams were going to have a shot at the playoffs. Can Dalton and Ponder keep it up going forward? That will be the key to answering the critical question about both second-year quarterbacks: Are they big-time starters in the NFL?