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Jets, Steelers and Texans should improve as stars return

On a weekend where parity bore its head in full force, the rich got richer.

The Texans, Jets and Steelers cleared the first lap of the NFL season with 3-1 records and either lead or tied atop their respective divisions. Now they're each set to get a significant upgrade by regaining players who have served their four-game suspensions for various violations of league rules.

Of course, Ben Roethlisberger's return as Pittsburgh's starting quarterback will be the biggest story of the week -- as it should be. However, the addition of wide receiver Santonio Holmes to an offense that's starting to bare its teeth should send chills through the rest of the Jets' opponents.

Neither of their comebacks might be as important -- or potentially disappointing -- as that of Texans linebacker Brian Cushing. Houston needs him to firm up a defense that's allowing 25.5 points per game and if he's up to the task, he could be the piece that gets the Texans that long-sought playoff berth.

I shot a text to a high-ranking Texans official Sunday night asking about the impact of Cushing's return and was told nothing more than, "HUGE."

Cushing is a defensive playmaker whose instincts and physicality are needed. Houston has a solid front four and middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans is as reliable as it comes. Adding Cushing at outside linebacker, where he can rush, cover receivers and stop the run, allows different schemes to be played and, most importantly, gives the Texans a boost in talent at one of the game's most important positions.

Here's the twist, and it's far greater than Roethlisberger maybe being rusty or Holmes playing a smaller role than expected on a team that boasts a nice roster of talent: Cushing was suspended for violating the steroid policy.

If his superb rookie season -- he was voted Defensive Rookie of the Year before and after the positive test -- was a result of chemical enhancements, it could show up in his play.

He might not be able to get places as fast or jar ball carriers with quite the same impact. The true Cushing will be revealed in a matter of weeks. Should there be no dropoff or even improvement in his play, the anticipation of his return will be more than worth it. Houston's remaining schedule is merciless and the defense will have to play better for the Texans to retain their early-season push.

L.T. hits the mark

LaDainian Tomlinson might not have had his typical monster season last year, but he looks rejuvenated as a Jet and is suddenly once again a star. Check out his latest career milestone. **More ...**

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Roethlisberger's return is equally as important, but the Steelers look like a team that can compete with just about anybody on any given day with that defense. While Roethlisberger will help ease some of the pressure on the defense, the Steelers have to make sure not to view Big Ben as a security blanket.

As for Holmes, the Jets pick up one of the most-dangerous receivers in the league. He might not get as much pub as a lot of other players, but Holmes can make the tough catch, be a threat at all levels and gain big yards after the reception. With so many options and LaDainian Tomlinson running great, we'll see if offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer can't control himself and goes all Jason Garrett or if he simply finds basic ways within the scheme to get his best receiving threat the ball. Oh, and coinciding with Holmes' debut could be the return of injured defenders Darrelle Revis and Calvin Pace.

The Jets are starting to look very scary.

More than passing concerns

I covered the Packers' 28-26 escape over Detroit on Sunday and quarterback Aaron Rodgers was not pleased with the play of the offense, which scored 21 first-half points but needed an interception return from Charles Woodson and the defense holding the Lions to four second-half field goals to win. We'll get back to Green Bay's offensive issues later.

What I also came away with was how fortunate the Packers are that Rodgers emerged as a productive player after Brett Favre was traded and that Green Bay isn't caught up in a quarterback-replacement mess like Philadelphia and Arizona.

The Cardinals seem headed toward rebuilding after Kurt Warner's retirement and releasing Matt Leinart, who they didn't think was their guy. Derek Anderson has lived down to expectations (three touchdowns, five interceptions and a 59.5 passer rating) and was benched in Sunday's 41-10 loss to San Diego after throwing two picks and completing seven of 14 passes for 64 yards.

Now the Cardinals seem poised to start undrafted rookie Max Hall -- something they should go ahead and do because Anderson's track record shows he's not going to make an abrupt 180-degree turn. Hall is going to struggle and he might or might not develop into the quarterback of the future. None of the guys Arizona opted to roll with from the outset were going to be that, so why not give Hall a shot?

This isn't pretty, but you could so see this coming.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, they're in the NFC West, where 8-8 could get them a division title. Then again, .500 could be optimistic for Arizona.

In terms of the Eagles, Michael Vick's rib injury opened the door for Kevin Kolb to gain the starting job, much the way Kolb's concussion opened the door for Vick. Kolb didn't look confident or sharp when he had to step in against the Redskins -- continuing his caliber of play from the preseason -- and that should be concerning if he has to take the field again.

I'm not buying that Kolb was rusty and hadn't gotten enough reps in practice to look crisp. He's been in the system for years and got the majority of first-team snaps through training camp and during the offseason. Charlie Batch, Seneca Wallace and Bruce Gradkowski hadn't gotten many first-team reps in practice either before they were thrown into action, but they, at the least, showed command.

If Kolb's confidence is shaken by losing his job and seeing Vick lavished with praise from teammates, fans and media, then the Eagles should be even more concerned if he does have to play again. The Eagles invited this when they traded Donovan McNabb to Washington and were willing to take the chance.

At least they're not in a position where they're already on the brink of starting an undrafted rookie.

Back to Green Bay

If the Packers make a Super Bowl run with their running back situation being what it is, that would mean Rodgers will be the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn haven't come anywhere close to replacing the production lost when Ryan Grant was placed on injured reserve with a mangled ankle and Green Bay's offense isn't maxing out.

They are a pass-first team but without some semblance of a running game, the Packers have yet to piece together the type of offensive showcase we expected. They might not, either. Rodgers sounded like he is getting fed up.

"Offensively, we've got to find our identity again," Rodgers said after completing 12 of 17 passes for 181 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. "We've got to make sure that we've got our best players on the field at all times and find ways to get them the ball."

Rodgers seemingly didn't like the game plan or personnel packages against Detroit. He also can't like having to throw on third-and-short because the running game is so hit-and-miss. Kuhn was able to churn out some tough yards in a critical fourth-quarter drive but the Packers are going to need more, especially when the inclement weather arrives.

On NFL Replay
NFL Replay will re-air the Green Bay Packers' 28-26 win over the Detroit  Lions on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. ET.

Several league sources said that Packers general manager Ted Thompson isn't willing to trade a high-to-mid-round pick to get a running back. Coach Mike McCarthy told me before facing the Lions that he planned to give Dimitri Nance a look, but Nance wasn't used much. We'll see if he is this week against the Redskins.

Nearly all of Green Bay's playoff competition is set at running back. They might not have the passing game the Packers do, but that's probably because they don't need it due to their rushing attack.

As for the defense, though cornerback Charles Woodson remains one of the top players in the league, fellow cornerback Tramon Williams is giving him a run for his money. Veteran Al Harris is expected to come off the physically-unable-to-perform list in a few weeks but he could have a hard time usurping Williams.

Second-year nose tackle B.J. Raji is starting to make his mark. He recorded his second sack of the season against Detroit, but he's also upholding his two-gap duties and keeping linemen off linebackers. His ability to jam up the middle and occasionally re-set the line of scrimmage has impressed coaches.

Defensive end Cullen Jenkins remains one of the most underrated players in the NFL -- and in his own family (he's Kris' brother). The seventh-year pro already has four sacks -- one in each game -- and he's helping enable outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who leads the league with seven sacks, to apply pressure by occupying blockers and getting Matthews in favorable one-on-one matchups.


» I got an up-close look at rookie running back Jahvid Best and he is scary good. He was bothered by a sprained toe and he still touched Green Bay for 84 yards on 17 touches (five receptions). He is dazzlingly evasive, but he's no dancer. Best is going to cause a lot problems for opponents and he's going to help Detroit win. The Lions aren't far away. They just have to learn to make a few key plays during the course -- and end -- of games.

"Jahvid Best, you knew he was going to be a dynamic player and he's definitely carried it over into the NFL," Woodson said. "They do a good job of getting him the ball out there in space where he can make people miss."

» Denver's Kyle Orton might be playing better than anyone in the NFL. Besides lighting it up with his arm (1,419 yards), he's been assertive and aggressive.

» The Falcons' defense is a lot better than people think and it could be why the team makes a deep playoff run. Atlanta, which leads the NFL with eight interceptions, is allowing 15 points per game with the defense giving up 53 (one TD came off a punt block).

Keying the surge is second-year safety William Moore, who has two picks and has shown good coverage ability. The Falcons used him almost exclusively on 49ers TE Vernon Davis in their 16-14 victory and he limited the Pro Bowler to four catches for 36 yards. Davis did have a TD, though.

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