Thursday, September 23, 2004

It's go time

Well, ready or not, Ben Roethlisberger will be under center full-time starting Sunday against the Dolphins. The good news is the Dolphins might have one of the worst offenses in recent history. The bad news is their defense is still one of the best in the AFC and the Steelers have yet to establish a running game.

I'm not sure we should take too much from the Baltimore game because Roethlisberger spent the majority of time in the shotgun (where he spent most of his time in college; and where he's most comfortable), and the Ravens were playing a lot of zone coverages in the second half. Still, after some first series jitters, Roethlisberger calmed down, made some throws and drove the Steelers to two touchdowns. Of course he sandwiched those touchdowns with just as many interceptions -- one going back for a touchdown.

So the question is, if the Steelers were a playoff contender going into the season with Tommy Maddox, can they still make the playoffs with Ben Roethlisberger? First off, I'm sure a lot of people who disagree with the premise of my question; namely that Pittsburgh has a shot at the playoffs. But with that allowance, it's still a question in search of an answer.

Consider this, up until Maddox got hurt, these were his numbers:

name yds att comp td int long rating
Maddox 209 35 17 0 0 39 67.4
To say these numbers are underwhelming is like saying that Deion Sanders is a little flamboyant. Maddox didn't throw any interceptions, but he also missed on a lot of opportunities that could have led to points. I guess somebody could argue that Maddox's numbers were similar to those of Trent Dilfer's when he led the Ravens to the Super Bowl (OK, he really didn't lead the Ravens, he just kind of got out of the way and avoided mistakes), but the difference is that this defense can't be counted on to get off the field consistently. Part of that is due to inexperience, part of it's due to Joey Porter talking more than he's performing. Either way, it's a tough comparison to make.

In order for Roethlisberger to be successful, the Steelers are going to have to control the clock and run the ball effectively. The Dolphins lost their defensive tackle last Sunday night and with Hartings and Faneca up front, Pittsburgh would be wise to run straight up the middle with Duce. And when Duce gets tired, bring in the Bus. This not only wears out the Miami defense, but it also alleviates the problem of having to block Jason Taylor (on a side note, in case you haven't heard, Verron Haynes is questionable for Sunday's game. I'm sure all those people calling for the Bus to be cut during training camp are having short-term memory loss right now. Mark Madden, you know who you are).

If Cowher only watched a couple of plays from the Bengals - Dolphins game, When the Steelers are on defense, they should blitz and blitz often. It doesn't matter if Joe Montana is back there, if he has less than one second to throw the ball he's either going to get sacked or make a lot of mistakes. The Dolphins running game is all but nonexistent, and this may help explain why Ricky Williams had such a low yards per carry last season.

Changing gears a bit, does anyone else have the sneaking suspicion that what happened to Mark Brunell last year in Jacksonville will be Tommy Maddox's fate this year in Pittsburgh? Remember how Jack Del Rio rushed Byron Leftwich into the game because of Brunell's sore elbow? And I know that Cowher had no intentions of rushing Roethlisberger into that role this season, but due to Maddox's injury that's where the Steelers are. And if Roethlisberger has some success, I don't seen Maddox ever winning his job back. What would be the point if Roethlisberger shows promise?

Well, whatever happens, if Pittsburgh wants to get back to the playoffs, I think it's important that they emerge as a running team that controls the clock and keeps their defense off the field for long stretches. Of course that's much easier to write than to go out and do, but hey, that's all I got. Seriously though, I don't think we'll see a considerable drop off going from Maddox to Roethlisberger. There's no doubt he'll see a whole bunch of stuff he never saw in the MAC, but I think he's in a situation where everything doesn't fall to him (see David Carr, Joey Harrington circa 2002, 2003). With guys like Hines, Plax, Randle El, and Duce should make the transition a little easier -- and playing the Dolphins when they're down doesn't hurt either.

After I wrote the original post, I got to thinking about the 2003 NFL season. Remember a couple of guys named Tim Rattay and Billy Volek? Rattay introduced himself personally to the Steelers on a Monday Night shellacking; Volek took over for an injured Steve McNair and led the Titans to several wins. My point is this: even though neither Rattay nor Volek were rookies, they'd seen almost no playing time outside of practice and when they played, they had a lot of success. And while Jeff Garcia is struggling in Cleveland, he's still probably preferable to Maddox; and everyone would agree that McNair is one of the best QBs in the league.

To make a short story long, the difference between Maddox and Roethlisberger is probably smaller than the difference between Garcia and Rattay and most definitely smaller than the difference between McNair and Volek. So the bottom line is maybe things aren't quite as bad as they seem.