At first thought, it seems odd to say a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback is underrated, but I'm starting to buy into this theory.
Yesterday was a great example of how Big Ben just doesn't get enough credit for his play. His stat line was very ordinary: 21-for-37 for 207 yards and no touchdowns. When you look at those numbers without watching the game, it's hard to appreciate just how well Roethlisberger played.
1) Buying time in the pocket. This Steelers offensive line is very average; Roethlisberger bails this unit out repeatedly. In Sunday's game, there were numerous times when Pittsburgh's offensive tackles were beat cleanly off the edge, but Big Ben was able to climb up in the pocket and get the ball out. When he had pressure up the middle, he side-stepped, pulled out of tackles or absorbed a hit while getting the ball out of his hand. The Eagles have a very deep and talented pass rush, but they didn't record a single sack.
2) Winning on third down. Roethlisberger showed why he's the NFL's best third-down quarterback during Pittsburgh's game-winning drive. He converted two third-down passes despite the Eagles pinning their ears back and attacking him. His ability to maintain poise, find the open man and deliver an accurate ball is uncanny. As a result of those key conversions, the Steelers not only kicked the game-clinching field goal, they also burned the final 6:33 off the game clock.
3) Protecting the ball. As the Eagles can attest, successful quarterbacking isn't just about the plays you make, it's also about the mistakes you avoid. Michael Vick lost two crucial fumbles for the Eagles, while Roethlisberger didn't record a single turnover. In fact, he has turned the ball over just once this season (a pick in the opening loss to the Denver Broncos). Decision-making is the most important aspect of quarterback play; all the arm talent in the world isn't worth a thing if you don't know where to throw the football.
Having worked for two AFC North teams (the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns), I have a healthy respect for Roethlisberger's talent, but I'm not sure he gets the national attention he deserves. It seems like every time top-tier quarterbacks are discussed, Big Ben is overlooked. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and the Manning brothers are outstanding, but Roethlisberger absolutely deserves to be in their company.
Didn't see this coming
The NFL enjoys the most parity of any professional sports league. Somehow, despite that truism, I find myself shocked by the result of a game or two each week of the season. This week, I was stunned when the Indianapolis Colts knocked off the Green Bay Packers.
I was positive this was going to be the week that the Packers rediscovered their 2011 form. First of all, they were taking on an Indianapolis squad dealing with an incredibly difficult situation surrounding the absence of head coach Chuck Pagano. Secondly, while this Colts' roster has some solid pieces in place, there are numerous weak spots, including a patchwork secondary. I expected Rodgers to light up that group and score 40-plus points.
Everything was going about how I'd anticipated it would as the game went to halftime. The Packers were up, 21-3, and seemed headed for an easy win. But the Colts made some key adjustments at the break and outscored the Packers, 27-6, in the second half. Andrew Luck will deservedly get a ton of credit for this win, but the Colts' pass rush was crucial as well. Indy harassed Rodgers (five sacks) and kept the Packers' offensive machine from finding a rhythm in the final 30 minutes.
Impressive in defeat
Despite falling short on the scoreboard, there were reasons for the following two teams to be encouraged in defeat:
Kansas City Chiefs: I can't defend quarterback Matt Cassel's performance in Sunday's 9-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, but there were positive signs on both sides of the ball for Kansas City. Defensively, the Chiefs held the Ravens' second-ranked offense to three field goals. Kansas City's starting outside linebackers, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, got consistent pressure on Joe Flacco and recorded two sacks apiece. Offensively, the ground game was excellent, racking up 214 yards against a normally stingy Baltimore run defense.
Denver Broncos: Sunday's loss to the New England Patriots dropped Denver's record to 2-3, but I'm still optimistic about this team, because of the play of Peyton Manning. He threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns -- and could've done even more damage if not for two fourth-quarter gaffes by Willis McGahee. If you take out the first-quarter stats from the Broncos' loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Manning has thrown 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He will continue to get more comfortable in this offense as the season progresses, and the schedule will lighten up, as well.
Three startling statistics
1) The Eagles have scored more than 20 points just once this season. There is no denying the fact that Philadelphia's defense is greatly improved this season, but the offense has been extremely underwhelming. Yardage totals are nice, but points win football games. Last season, the Eagles were held under 20 points just four times. They've already matched that total five games into the 2012 campaign.
2) In the last two games, the Washington Redskins have converted on only three of 20 third downs. The health of Robert Griffin III is the top priority for the Redskins following the loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but this is one area of play that this team desperately needs to improve on. Washington has been dreadful on third down of late. For the offense to fix this, pass protection must get better and RG3 needs one of his weapons to emerge as a go-to target.
3) Andrew Luck has thrown the ball 45 or more times in three of his four NFL games. The Indianapolis Colts are not babysitting their rookie quarterback. The training wheels are off and Luck is being asked to win games with his arm. If not for a late-game defensive meltdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Luck would already have three come-from-behind wins under his belt.
New York Giants' O-line rounding into form
Just like long-snappers and officials, offensive linemen tend to get noticed only when things go wrong. Well, let's change that up and give some love to the New York Giants' big boys up front. They paved the way for Ahmad Bradshaw to pile up 200 yards on the ground against the Cleveland Browns while holding their opponent without a sack for the second straight week. After a rocky start against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1, this group has been outstanding. The rebirth of Big Blue's run game has made the play-action passing attack very difficult to defend. The Giants are tied for first place in the NFC East, and much of the credit belongs to the O-line.
Better with age
I love tracking the progress of young players in the NFL, but Week 5 was a great reminder that there are plenty of "old heads" still playing at a very high level. Redskins linebacker London Fletcher (37 years old) proved that his instincts are as sharp as ever, racking up an impressive 20 tackles in a narrow loss to Atlanta. Meanwhile, Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (36) continues to make plays every week. All he did against the Redskins was haul in 13 balls for 123 yards and a touchdown. He wasn't the only veteran pass catcher to have a big day, either: Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne (33) also caught 13 balls for a ridiculous 212 yards and a touchdown.