Skip to main content

To teammates, Roethlisberger looks better than ever

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Ike Taylor could see it two weeks ago in practice, as Ben Roethlisberger prepared for his first game back from his suspension.

The footwork. The crispness of his delivery. The accuracy of his throws. The quality of the passes being completed against one of the better defense's in the NFL -- and that included those that came at the cornerback's own expense.

Taylor has been Roethlisberger's teammate for all seven seasons the quarterback has spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has studied his game long enough and closely enough to establish a standard by which to measure his performance. And it's a fairly lofty one given that Roethlisberger was under center for both of the Steelers' Super Bowl victories since 2005 and that before this season, even amid the bad behavior that would lead to him being suspended for the first four games, Roethlisberger was easily among the top five quarterbacks in the league.

"Ben, man, you look better than I've ever seen," Taylor told him. "Even (better than) in training camp, when everybody was saying you looked good."

So it hasn't come as any surprise to Taylor, or anyone else on the Steelers who has had a close-up view of Roethlisberger's workouts, that his return is going exceptionally well.

After a little bit of a slow start against the improving Cleveland Browns in Week 6, he showed the familiar form that makes him so good. On Sunday, with the Miami Dolphins shutting down the Steelers' running game, Roethlisberger responded the way an elite quarterback should by throwing for 302 yards and two touchdowns. He effectively ran the no-huddle offense for the first time this season. He also lunged for what was initially ruled a touchdown, but later became a fumble that the Steelers, in a controversial ruling, were able to retain to set up the winning field goal in a 23-22 victory.

"I still left quite a few things out there," Roethlisberger said. "I'm disappointed in myself, but with that being said, a win's a win."

If you ask his teammates, they'll tell you their quarterback is being a bit too hard on himself. "I think he's doing a great job," linebacker James Farrior said. "I mean, to come back in after a month and to play as well as he's played these last two games, I think, is tremendous. The sky's the limit for him, and I think he's only going to get better each week."

With a "new and improved" Roethlisberger, the Steelers can make a pretty convincing case as the best team in the NFL.

Their defense and running game helped carry them while Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch filled in at quarterback. Now, they have the passer who can deliver those long, difference-making throws, such as the one that resulted in a 53-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace and the one that produced a 43-yard gain to Hines Ward to set up a field goal.

"He stepped up in the pocket and I was coming open into a zone and he laid it over the top, only where I could get it," Ward said, marveling as if that hadn't happened many times before and in bigger games. "He's the same Ben. Every time we step into the huddle, we feel like we have a chance to win every ballgame. And that's always been the same."

Ward does, however, see Roethlisberger showing a better understanding of the offense than he did even a year ago.

"He's looking down to his first, second, third reads," said Ward, who also caught a 21-yard touchdown pass against Miami. "It's amazing. And then his escapability, getting to extend the plays, even makes him more dangerous. All in all, he's getting back into form and it's great to have him back."

Great is one word. Taylor has a different one.

When he thinks about the Steelers' 3-1 start without Roethlisberger, when he thinks about their defense (which ranked sixth in the NFL overall and first against the run entering Week 7), and when he thinks about a running game that has been mostly solid this season, he sees the team being capable of something that is appropriate for the season.

"It can be scary, man," Taylor said.

They've got answers

» The Tennessee Titans, because even on a day when Chris Johnson couldn't find room to run, they were able to torch the Philadelphia Eagles through the air with reserve quarterback Kerry Collins connecting with Kenny Britt, who didn't start because of his involvement in a nightclub brawl two days before the game, for 225 yards and three touchdowns.

» The Kansas City Chiefs, because as long as their running game continues to dominate, they're going to have the inside track to winning the woeful AFC West. The rest of their schedule has plenty of winnable games, including a Week 8 encounter with winless Buffalo. Matt Cassel might not be spectacular, but he can sufficiently complement the NFL's best ground attack.

» The Eagles, because even after the pummeling his team received from the Titans, coach Andy Reid was able to offer hope that things could turn around after the Week 8 bye when he announced that Michael Vick was returning as his starting quarterback. Kevin Kolb showed he is a solid backup, and maybe more some day, but Vick gives the Eagles the best chance to win.

They've got questions

» The Chicago Bears, because despite having a share of first place in the NFC North and losing each of their last two games by only three points, they look awful. They had six turnovers against the Washington Redskins, and that four-interception game of pitch and catch that Jay Cutler played with DeAngelo Hall is simply mind boggling for an NFL quarterback.

» The New Orleans Saints, because there is simply no excuse for being so thoroughly outplayed and outcoached by the Browns, even if they are making significant progress. That impressive showing at Tampa seems like a distant memory, especially where Drew Brees' game is concerned, and things aren't likely to get any easier against Pittsburgh.

» The San Diego Chargers, because despite being without receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee, they still thought it was a good idea to throw the ball 50 times to a mere 13 rushing attempts in suffering a close loss to the New England Patriots.

Observation points

» For all of the talk that fines don't do enough to discourage dangerous hits, it's interesting to note that in the games played after the NFL handed out $175,000 in fines to the three players at the center of the Week 6 controversy were uneventful when it came to horrifying contact. That tells me that players, as has been true for as long as the league has been in business, hate parting with money more than they love appearing in highlight videos.

Certainly, suspensions can have a major impact on the wallet as well (and also potentially harm the fortunes of the team losing the services of said player). But it's fair to say that the fines levied against the Steelers' James Harrison ($75,000), the Patriots' Brandon Meriweather ($50,000), and the Falcons' Dunta Robinson ($50,000) were more than sufficient in getting everyone's attention.

» Given that his team plays in the NFC West, it is somewhat understandable that San Francisco coach Mike Singletary was able to keep a straight face when he declared, after a loss to previously winless Carolina, "... I still believe we can go to the playoffs."

But as bad as his division might be, it doesn't appear to be quite bad enough to allow that wishful/crazy thinking to become reality. Did Singletary happen to notice that his quarterbacks, Alex Smith (who made an early exit with a shoulder injury) and David Carr, combined to complete fewer than 44 percent of their passes, and that Carr's interception with 1:08 remaining set up the Panthers' winning score?

The more pertinent question facing Singletary isn't whether his team will make the playoffs. It is whether he'll make it to midseason as their coach.

» I can't recall the bottom falling out of a team as emphatically as it has with the Denver Broncos. Other coaches in the NFL are struggling to get their teams pointed in the right direction, but one has to wonder whether the Broncos have flat-out quit on Josh McDaniels, whose relationship with the squad and most -- if not all-- of its fan base has been antagonistic since his arrival last year. There aren't many other ways to explain the thoroughly atrocious effort against Oakland.

» Raheem Morris' energy and enthusiasm are infectious. Spend five minutes around the guy and he can make you a believer in his young Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bucs clearly have bought into his program, which is reaching the midpoint of its second season, in a big way. Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber told me that he recently told Morris, his former position coach, that he was looking and sounding more like a head coach. However, I don't know that it made a whole lot of sense for Morris to declare, after Sunday's one-point win against St. Louis, that the Buccaneers are "the best team in the NFC."

There is a lot to like about the Bucs, beginning with second-year quarterback Josh Freeman. But you'd expect the coach of a team that just squeaked out a home win against another young club also in the early stages of rebuilding to be a little bit more humble. After all, it was only a week earlier that the Buccaneers were pounded by the Saints. And their other loss, to Pittsburgh, also was lopsided.

I'm not suggesting that Morris is wrong to feel great about his team's progress, but saying the Bucs are the best team in the NFC seems a bit over the top, even with the conference lacking a dominant club.

» I heard plenty of complaints from Baltimore Ravens fans who thought I was short-changing their team when I didn't rank them higher than the Steelers even after their victory at Pittsburgh. As impressive as that comeback might have been and as big a step as quarterback Joe Flacco might have taken that day, I had some reservations about the Ravens.

I still do.

This team's inconsistency could prove problematic, especially after they return from their Week 8 bye to face a fairly tough stretch of games. As impressive it was for them to beat the Jets in an electrified Monday night opener at the New Meadowlands and to pound Denver in Week 5, it's still troubling that it took everything they had to beat Pittsburgh minus Roethlisberger and that they didn't do a good enough job of taking advantage of the Patriots' suspect defense in Week 6.

After Sunday's overtime win against the Bills, the Ravens should be feeling uneasy about the road ahead. They allowed themselves to be pushed to the brink by the worst team in the NFL. Their vaunted defense made a journeyman quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, look like Peyton Manning.

» Happiest team to have a quarterback controversy: The Browns. Colt McCoy might have thrown for only 74 yards but still did enough to help take down the Super Bowl champs. Teams that only wish they had a quarterback controversy: San Francisco and Denver.

» Only at Sun Life Stadium, after the home team has suffered a heartbreaking loss, can you hear the question I heard from a group of young men who clearly had gotten over the outcome: "Which way to the nightclub?"

The nightclub is LIV, which opened in the stadium this season. Having seen it as part of a media tour before the Dolphins' Sept. 26 home-opener, I knew where it was ... as I headed for my more natural habitat, the press box.

Four intriguing matchups for Week 8

Houston at Indianapolis

This is the Colts' chance for redemption for that 34-24 season-opening loss at Houston. But are they healthy enough to get it? Of their many health issues, the biggest figures to be the season-ending wrist injury to tight end Dallas Clark. One might assume that having an extra week to prepare for the Texans' sieve-like defense would be a significant advantage for Peyton Manning, but the guy did have nearly five months to get ready for that opener.

Pittsburgh at New Orleans

This is a potential Super Bowl preview, although that could have been said with more conviction before the Saints' loss to Cleveland. The Steelers are as good a choice as any to be regarded the best team in the NFL. Before Week 7, a compelling case could be made that the Saints were the top dogs of the NFC. But they're still the defending Super Bowl champions and they figure to be highly motivated to bounce back from the humiliation they suffered against the Browns and the chance to knock off the big, bad Steelers in prime time.

Green Bay at N.Y. Jets

After a week out of the spotlight, the Jets are eager to resume the hottest streak in the NFL. They no doubt relish the opportunity to unleash their pressure-packed defense on Aaron Rodgers. And the extra time has given them the chance to get one of their biggest difference-makers, cornerback Darrelle Revis, healthy while also allowing Mark Sanchez more time to get comfortable with Santonio Holmes. Despite their dramatic win against Minnesota, the banged-up Packers have some questions. Can they -- and especially Clay Matthews -- generate enough heat to force Sanchez into rare mistakes? Can their offense, which struggled against the Vikings despite getting multiple turnovers and good field position, find its groove against the Jets' punishing defense?

Minnesota at New England

Randy Moss' return to Foxborough is enough reason for this to be considered a compelling game. It can't exactly be called a triumphant return. The Vikings are 1-2 since acquiring Moss in the much-hyped trade with the Patriots, who have gone 2-0 in that span. Deion Branch made it easy for forget Moss with his strong performance against Baltimore, although the Patriots' passing game left much to be desired in Sunday's win at San Diego. Moss does look fairly comfortable on his new/old team, catching 12 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Of course, that is overshadowed by the Brett Favre drama, which includes persistent questions about his health (will he be able to play on that bum ankle?) and the Jenn Sterger case.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.