Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his oddly underrated career. The Steelers' offense has racked up more yards than any team in the league despite missing Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and Maurkice Pouncey. What are they going to look like when everyone is healthy?
Roethlisberger has hit another level by going downfield more than ever. Too often overlooked throughout his career when discussing the top quarterbacks in the league, he now looks to be comfortably in the top three. The pieces are in place for him to have a late-career MVP run that looked unlikely when Todd Haley took over the Steelers' offense in 2012.
Last Sunday's performance against the 49ers was one of the best games I've seen in three years of writing this column. He completed twice as many impressive vertical passes (six) as he had off-target throws (three). His style of play has always been built around aggression. But now Roethlisberger doesn't need to improvise after the snap because he's irrationally good at simply dropping back and heaving it down the field.
Roethlisberger is the best deep ball thrower in the league. Through two weeks, he's completed 10 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. That's double the total of any other quarterback. It's insane that the six plays below happened in the same game, one in which he only threw 27 passes.
There's no longer any questions about Roethlisberger's place among quarterback royalty. The Big Three in September 2015 consists of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Big Ben.
*This is the Quarterback Index. After four weeks, we'll rank the quarterbacks solely based on this year's play. While collecting evidence in the meantime, the rankings below are based on one question: What QB would you want running your team for the rest of the season? *
The Big Three
Rodgers is "smart to the point he's annoying," guard Josh Sitton told Greg Bishop in his fantastic profile of Rodgers for Sports Illustrated. But his skills stand apart, and perhaps the most telling part of the article was the varying answers from coaches and teammates about his best superpower.
My choice would be his across-the-body feats of arm strength made on the move that feel like a weekly occurrence. He combines jaw-droppers with so few negative plays. ...
While Peyton Manning and Drew Brees experience the inevitable ravages of time, it's remarkable to see Tom Brady throwing with more zip than ever. His pass up the seam to Rob Gronkowski in the first quarter in Buffalo changed the flow of the game and seemed to stun the Bills' defense. The Patriots are calling plays like it's 2007 again. It's remarkable to see Brady attacking with five wide receivers while ahead by three scores, and throwing 50-yard bombs on fourth down from midfield. He's playing without a conscience.
Rivers has enjoyed a clean, focused start to the season after a rough end to 2014. The Chargers offensive line has killed too many drives with penalties and quick pressure, but Rivers' accuracy has been nearly spotless. The Chargers don't trust Rivers' protection to hold up on deep drops, which is partly why Rivers had only one play over 20 yards last week.
Still, Rivers looks energized by the talent around him. Stevie Johnson looks ready to be a solid No. 2 receiver again, and tight end Ladarius Green was finally a consistent factor before we learned midweek about his concussion. The two plays aren't flashy, but show why Rivers is special:
Rivers stays in the pocket until the last moment, doesn't get bothered by the pass rush at his feet, and delivers an uncanny touch pass down the field. The second throw is typical of his outstanding accuracy. Rivers is back to his usual self, and that's one of the best quarterbacks of his generation. ...
Like Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer has a chance to enjoy the best season of his career in his mid-30s. His arm and movent look better than ever, which is amazing coming off a torn ACL. The Cardinals are 15-2 in Palmer's last 17 games. He has a 34:13 TD:INT ratio over that span with 4,651 yards. His weapons are his best since the 2005 Bengals. I want to see him against a better defense this year before moving him up any further, but there's no denying that he's on a roll. ...
Drew Brees remains this high until we see if he plays through injury. He hurt his shoulder because his right tackle repeatedly couldn't protect him against unknown Bucs pass rusher Jacquies Smith. Meanwhile, Sean Payton's hand-picked solution at tackle, No. 13 overall pick Andrus Peat, is stuck on the bench. Brees had no juice on his vertical throws after the injury. If he plays this week, teams like the Panthers will sit on the short throws. Even the Bucs defense saw the Saints' screens coming a mile away. ... Look for Dick Lebeau to blitz like mad until Andrew Luck and the Colts show they can handle it this season.
Andy Dalton is off to a hot start. He's mixing in more highlight reel throws than usual and his deep ball has been better. We've been through this before. He enjoyed hot streaks in 2012 and 2013 without maintaining his gains. The health of Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones is one reason for optimism. Between the line, backfield and receiver group, Dalton has one of the best supporting casts in football. ... Alex Smith's Week 1 aggressiveness was missing against Denver. The Chiefs still look like an offense that plays to the level of its competition. ...
Matthew Stafford is off to a frustrating start, which is typical. But the way the Lions are struggling is atypical. They have not been able to dial up a deep passing game because the offensive line can't handle assignments. He's struggling to pull off anything but short passes. Stafford has looked solid except for a handful of terrible throws each week, which is sadly typical. He can't afford to sit out a week to heal with the team 0-2.
Stuck in the middle
Week 2 of the Nick Foles-Frank Cignetti P.I. buddy cop comedy in St. Louis was not a barrel full of laughs. Foles had a lot of failed completions -- short, pointless passes on third and long. Foles showed poor clock management and could not get on the same page with Jared Cook. ...
The Redskins' offense, besides Matt Jones, is not a lot of fun to watch. But Jay Gruden is accomplishing what he wants by not asking Kirk Cousins to do much. The team is second in time of possession, and ran even when they were trailing in Week 1. Cousins will still throw a loose pass or three each game, but that number is down compared to last year. He's minimizing the impact of his pass protection with short throws and mostly looks calm on third down. Limiting Cousins' exposure is good coaching.
Winston's aggressiveness paid off this week. His third-and-16 completion late in the first half against the Saints turned the game around. He mixed in a handful of pretty throws with very few mistakes. He throws on the run with ease. ... Taylor showed some red flags against New England. He held the ball too long and struggled to adjust when his first read was taken away. He didn't trust his receivers to win against man coverage. ... Mallett has Kaepernick disease. Every pitch is a fastball.