Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 10, beginning with Big Ben's recent offensive explosion and continuing below with 10 more things to watch.
It struck some in attendance as a singular moment in Roethlisberger's career, the day that -- even with two Super Bowl titles already to his name -- he began to take a more vocal role with the offense and started chiseling a new identity for his team.
"It's no secret Pittsburgh is dominated by the Steel Curtain, and rightfully so," Roethlisberger said in an interview this week. "I wanted it to be a challenge to the offensive coaches and the offensive players and myself: Why can't they talk about our offense, as well?"
The defense, which usually ranks in the top 10 (from 2000 to 2012, the Steelers never finished outside the top 10 in yardage allowed), has struggled with considerable personnel shuffling, currently ranking 14th in total D and 20th in scoring D. (Though the unit has improved in recent weeks.) The offense, meanwhile, is ranked third in yards and seventh in points scored, heights not reached since 2001, when Kordell Stewart, Jerome Bettis and Plaxico Burress were driving things.
Todd Haley -- the offensive coordinator whose relationship with Roethlisberger has been scrutinized with the intensity of a Kardashian romance, and who has been publicly loathed by Snoop Dogg (Roethlisberger laughs when Snoop Dogg is mentioned) -- predicted this surge on a rainy morning in late July. As the Steelers prepared to practice in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Haley said he and Roethlisberger were on the same page when contemplating a no-huddle offense, and that their relationship was good. Following a 2013 campaign in which the Steelers, their offense short-circuited by early injuries, barely missed the playoffs despite winning six of their final eight games, Haley said his group was poised to make a big leap.
The no-huddle has not been a prominent feature of Roethlisberger's explosive play lately -- in the first seven weeks of the season, 27.8 percent of Roethlisberger's attempts were out of the no-huddle offense, a number that has dipped to just 5.8 percent in the past two weeks. But preparing in the offseason might have helped smooth the rough edges of the Roethlisberger-Haley pairing. Haley, after all, calls the plays when the no-huddle is not being used.
"This is the furthest along we've been," Haley said in July. "Having run a bunch of no-huddle in Arizona with Kurt Warner, it's been a big part of building our relationship. When he has to get us in the right play, he's a very prideful guy. He doesn't want to be wrong. Preparing Ben for it has really improved our communication and working relationship."
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Even Haley might not have imagined this, though, especially after a slow start to 2014 -- through the first six games, the offense averaged fewer than 21 points per contest. But in Weeks 8 and 9, Roethlisberger went off, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw six touchdown passes in two consecutive regular-season games. He had no interceptions and a combined 862 yards in that span. And the Steelers are facing the cornerback-challenged Jets this Sunday. Roethlisberger is also poised to eclipse his career best in virtually every meaningful quarterbacking category. According to Pro Football Focus, his accuracy percentage when under pressure is 75, the highest in the league -- a testament to Roethlisberger's well-established ability to extend plays.
After a 3-3 start, the Steelers have won three in a row. With Cleveland's win at Cincinnati on "Thursday Night Football," Pittsburgh suddenly sits atop the AFC North. And the difference has been entirely on the offensive side of the ball, where the Steelers are averaging 21 more points and 51 more yards per game in the past three weeks than they were in the opening six.
Receiver Antonio Brown leads the NFL in receptions and receiving yards -- no Steelers receiver has ever done that over a full season -- and rookie receiver Martavis Bryant has five touchdowns on 10 receptions in the only three games for which he has been active. The offense, in fact, seems to take off when Bryant is in the mix -- and when the Steelers simplify things, essentially allowing Roethlisberger to get into a rhythm with Haley calling the plays.
That's right: The team whose offense was once personified by someone known as "The Bus" now has some of the most explosive skill-position players in the league.
"I don't know if it's a surge now," Roethlisberger said. "We've had a lot of young guys on the outside making plays; we're not putting too much on anybody's plate with the young guys. We're believing in each other and in the system."
This has been a remarkably tranquil stretch for Roethlisberger, whose early career was rocked by tumult. Steelers president Art Rooney II announced in late July that the team would wait until after the season to extend Roethlisberger's contract, so that it could take care of other players first, a decision that Roethlisberger understood. That put to rest speculation that Roethlisberger's career could end somewhere else.
The offensive output, meanwhile, has quieted questions about Roethlisberger's relationship with Haley and shelved, at least for now, calls for Haley to be fired.
"I think that's the problem -- people thought there was an issue early on," Roethlisberger said. "There was never an issue, just a feeling-out process, a new-colleague process. Any time you have a new co-worker, there is always a feeling out. I've never met someone who was instantly my best friend. It got made into such a big deal. It's hard to say we've fixed our relationship when there was nothing to fix."
The AFC North is a brutally difficult division; it seems to have supplanted the NFC West as the NFL's toughest, as all four teams are above .500. The Steelers will need their offense to continue producing if they want to hold onto first place. But the rise of the offense has also seen Roethlisberger's profile elevate -- he is now being discussed as one of the elite quarterbacks in the game, which had been a rarity despite the two championships the Steelers have won on his watch. The omission has not bothered him.
"I think typically the stats aren't there," Roethlisberger said. "These guys are throwing 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns -- that's not what we do here. That's just the way it is. I'm fine with that. A couple of weeks ago, the bigger stat to me was winning the 100th game since I've been here. That meant more to me."
Roethlisberger insists he usually doesn't learn of his numbers until after a game, though he's aware people find that hard to believe. After all, everybody else knows them -- and now they also know the offense, just the way Roethlisberger wanted.
1) Can Tony Romo pick up the Cowboys? After two straight losses, Dallas seems likely to turn to Romo and his injured back against the Jaguars in London. Keeping Romo protected will be critical -- the Jaguars are tied for third in the league with 27 sacks, and they are one of just two teams that have multiple sacks in every game. The Cowboys need Romo to be available down the stretch. After their Week 11 bye, four of their final six games are against NFC East opponents.
2) Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins' emerging offense get a big test against the Lions. Miami has outscored its opponents by 64 points in the past three weeks, the best scoring differential in the NFL. But Detroit's defense has allowed 126 points all season, the fewest the team has given up through eight games since 1976. That makes theirs the top scoring defense in the league.
3) A clash between .500 teams heading in opposite directions. The 49ers face some glaring problems as they try to save their season against the Saints: They have no rushing touchdowns in the past five games, and they have the NFL's worst red-zone offense, scoring a touchdown just 40 percent of the time. While the Saints' defense is allowing opponents to score on 42.7 percent of drives (29th in the league), the offense is in the top five in scoring (fifth), total offense (second), yards per play (first) and third-down offense (third).
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4) Can Mark Sanchez keep the Eagles in first place in the NFC East -- and revive his career? One thing to watch as Chip Kelly's crew takes on the Panthers on Monday night: The Eagles lead the league with 21 giveaways, including two Sanchez interceptions last week. Since 1970, just seven teams that led the league in giveaways have made the playoffs. In his time starting with the Jets, Sanchez had 69 interceptions.
5) Can the Rams' revived pass rush disrupt Carson Palmer and derail the Cardinals? The Rams notched eight sacks against the 49ers, giving them 13 in their past three games -- but Palmer has been sacked just six times. It's especially important to pester him on third down, where he is the highest-rated quarterback at 129.5. The Rams are 2-1 against NFC West teams and 1-4 against everyone else; the Cardinals, meanwhile, are 5-0 against the NFC, making them the only NFL team without a conference loss.
6) A potential battle for an AFC wild-card spot takes shape in Buffalo. The Bills' defense, which ranks second in the league with 28 sacks, will have to move fast to get to Alex Smith, who doesn't go deep that often. The Chiefs are the only team in the NFL that does not have a receiving touchdown by a wide receiver this season. Twenty-eight quarterbacks have made 200 or more attempts in 2014 -- and Smith is the only one who has thrown fewer than five attempts at least 30 yards in the air. He has just three.
7) Can the Bears' misfiring offense keep up with the Packers in what might be Chicago's last stand? The Bears are averaging 5.6 fewer points per game than they did last season with Jay Cutler. The quarterback has 12 giveaways, tied for third-most in the league, and he's targeting receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery less than he did in 2013. Aaron Rodgers -- who says his hamstring is fine -- is on pace to throw 38 touchdown passes and six interceptions this season.
8) Denver at Oakland: A matchup of the league's top red-zone offenses -- really. Even if the Raiders are second only to the Broncos in that category, this is still probably not a great time for Oakland to face Denver. Since joining the Broncos, Peyton Manning is 6-1 after a loss, averaging 373 yards in those games, with 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions. In his career, Manning is 8-0 against opponents who are 0-3 or worse.
9) Can Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson fix his post-Golden-Tate-and-Percy-Harvin deep passing game? Wilson has only completed eight passes that have traveled at least 20 yards in the air this season, with a completion percentage of just 33.3 on such passes. He also has the third lowest third-down conversion rate in the NFL. But the Giants have allowed 400 yards of total offense in five of eight games, and they're allowing 8.1 yards per third-down play, the most in the NFL. Plus, they'll be without cornerback Prince Amukamara, who has been lost for the season with a biceps injury.
10) Why did the Buccaneers go back to Josh McCown at quarterback to face the Falcons? The Bucs' offense ranks near the bottom in most major offensive categories, but while McCown's completion percentage is higher than Mike Glennon's, he has not thrown for 200 yards in a game this season, is averaging almost 120 fewer yards per game and has thrown just two touchdowns and four interceptions. One big Glennon problem: slow starts. He was completing just 33.3 percent of his first-quarter passes.