Commentary

Watch out for Big Ben

If Steelers sneak into the playoffs, they could be dangerous because of Roethlisberger

Originally Published: December 23, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Could Ben Roethlisberger end up being the most dangerous quarterback down the stretch, playing for what could end up being one of the most dangerous teams in the final weeks?

Count on it.

Roethlisberger's 503-yard performance against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday was a warning shot to the NFL that the Pittsburgh Steelers aren't among the playoff dead yet. Even if they lose to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at Heinz Field and are knocked out of the playoffs, Roethlisberger and the Steelers plan to do collateral damage to those going against them.

An embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 14 appeared to put the Steelers out of the playoff race. They were 6-7, the offense appeared to have lost direction and the pass defense had fallen off dramatically. But Roethlisberger put the team on his shoulders against the Packers and carried it to victory.

That's what elite quarterbacks do in what is turning into a golden age of quarterbacks. Several readers of the mailbag still aren't buying into my elite quarterback theories. I had several questioning me having Joe Flacco of the Ravens as an elite quarterback even though his numbers match up with the good ones and he won two playoff games last year.

No one questions Roethlisberger's ability. He'll go over 4,000 yards passing Sunday with one game left and he's one of the game's most dangerous quarterbacks in the final four minutes. And there is still a chance the Steelers could outmaneuver the Broncos and make the playoffs.

For that to happen, the Steelers and the Ravens have to get to 9-7 and match up against the Broncos, who lost to the Steelers and Ravens. The rest of the 7-7 teams would have to finish 8-8 or be behind the Ravens and Steelers in 9-7 tiebreakers.

It could happen, and if it does, watch out. Getting Roethlisberger back into the playoff mix would give the NFL 12 playoff teams with 12 elite quarterbacks. You'll have elite going against elite. Anything can happen.

From the inbox

Q: With the impending shakeup in Washington, and likely hiring of Mike Shanahan, what can Redskins fans expect regarding changes on defense? Greg Blache has done a good job for years, and other than the sloppy tackling in our secondary, we've been outstanding this year. Also, with Jason Campbell's solid play this year (and improving stats every season), what are the chances he stays?

Jeff in Baltimore

A: I don't see Shanahan bringing back Blache if he gets the job. My guess is that he would bring Bob Slowik with him as his defensive coordinator. Slowik worked with Shanahan in Denver and will be on his staff in some defensive capacity. That means they will stay in the 4-3 defense. Obviously, any new head coach is going to try to focus on better tackling. Expect a hard training camp if Shanahan goes to Washington. As for Campbell, he's going to be replaced. If there is no salary cap next year, the Redskins will place the first- and third-round restricted tender on him and see if he has any trade value. Shanahan and Daniel Snyder will look to draft one of the top quarterbacks -- Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen or whomever Shanahan feels comfortable developing. It's not out of the question for Campbell to make it back on the roster for one season, but he's definitely going to be replaced.

Q: If your team was down in the fourth quarter, which quarterback would you want driving your offense for the winning score, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

Brian in San Jose

A: I want Manning in the fourth quarter, but I want Brady for four quarters in playoff games. Manning is the master of driving 80 yards in 80 seconds late in a game. He has seven fourth-quarter comebacks this season. No quarterback puts as much pressure on a defense as Manning does at the end of a half or at the end of a game. He's so good at it, Bill Belichick makes the bad move of going for a fourth down deep in his territory late in a game to try to keep the ball away from Manning. Manning owns the fourth quarter. Brady owns Super Bowls and the playoffs.

Q: As a Bears fan, I've watched in frustration how ineffective and unsuccessful Bears draft picks have generally turned out each year. Is it just me or isn't there a pattern of picking Big 12 -- and specifically Texas/Oklahoma area players -- year after year, true to Lovie Smith's roots? Have you ever seen a team with such a consistent draft-day pattern? And would you agree with my theory that favoritism toward Oklahoma/Texas players has warped and hurt the Bears' draft decision-making?

From Drew in Chicago

A: Most teams have patterns similar to that if their front office has been in place for some time. That pattern worked well when Jerry Angelo built the defense that helped carry the Bears to the playoffs and a Super Bowl run. You have to agree that they do get some quality athletes that way. Something has gone awry as far as developing some of the players. Cedric Benson was one of those draft choices and he was a bust in Chicago. In Cincinnati, he has been one of the best backs in football this year. The Bears could do better in drafting players, but the coaching staff has to take responsibility for not getting the most out of the offensive selections.

Q: So why is everyone shocked the Jets are still in contention? They are 7-7 with the best scoring defense and best rushing offense in the league. Plus, they have lost three games on the last play and in one other they were very close to the winning score at the end. I think they are much better than they are given credit for.

From Bruce in Durham, N.C.

A: I believe in Rex Ryan and I have to give him credit for making the Jets better than the five or six wins I thought they were going to have going against a tougher schedule than last year. What was predictable was that their offense would struggle using a rookie quarterback. Mark Sanchez is the right quarterback for the franchise, but he isn't at the level Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco were last year. That's not surprising because he didn't play a lot in college. This season offers hope for next season. At least they were in the hunt this year. I don't see them making the playoffs, but Ryan deserves a lot of credit.

Q: Now that my Bucs are guaranteed a top-five pick, what positions do you see them targeting in the draft? They have 10 picks in all! I hope the take Ndamukong Suh at No. 2 and look for a WR and CB. I think I am fine with our LB corps in place; they are young, speedy, and a good fit for the Tampa 2.

Ray in Norfolk, Va.

A: You figure Ndamukong Suh is going to either Tampa Bay or Detroit. If he goes to Tampa Bay, the Bucs would be reliving the days of Warren Sapp. Suh would make that defense. The next objective would be to get a top wide receiver -- where the Bucs have too much age and not enough speed. Plus, I'm not sure if Antonio Bryant is going to be back, so they need to get another target for QB Josh Freeman. But the defensive line is the biggest weakness on the team now.

Q: What is the "State of the Union" in Buffalo? Is my team as baffled as I am? QB? OL? DL? What in the world is it going to take for the Bills to become competitive playoff contenders? Most important, do you think Buffalo is capable of making the changes that it requires?

Kyle in Buffalo

A: The Bills were competitive under Dick Jauron. They just weren't good enough to win in the AFC East, and that remains the problem. I still go back to last year. They were 7-3 outside the division and 0-6 in the division. They can't match up and win against 3-4 defenses, and they are in a division dominated by 3-4 defenses. They have to rebuild the offensive line. That is a bigger priority than the quarterback position, where the Bills are back to the drawing board. The Bills can't function with any quarterback behind that line. This has to be an offensive draft, and it's not out of the question for them to hire an offensive head coach.

Q: I saw that you reported the Big Tuna (Bill Parcells) doesn't like to take a WR in the first round. So with Chad Henne possibly our starting QB for the next season and the future, whom do you see the Dolphins taking in the first round?

Joe in Miami

A: It would have to be an exceptional receiver for Bill Parcells to be determined enough to take him. It was funny how he fought the idea of drafting WR Terry Glenn in New England and then brought him to Dallas as an experienced and valuable veteran. Parcells likes tough football players. I wouldn't be surprised if he goes for a linebacker or a safety. Parcells likes to change the culture of a team by bringing in tough guys. That's not to say receivers aren't tough guys, but they are known more for their skills than their toughness. I'd like to see them get a receiver, too. And they will -- it just might not be in the first round.

Q: Assuming that the Browns have a top-five draft pick in 2010, what is their most pressing need? If they win out and finish with a 5-11 record, and miss out on Suh, who is the next best fit for the Browns? They have needs on both sides of the ball, but what do you think they will address first?

Dominic in Cleveland

A: Offense. The odds of them drafting offense went up with the hiring of Mike Holmgren as team president. I hate to say this, but they have to look at quarterbacks first. They could get away with going with Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson, but both quarterbacks were ruined this season. Holmgren's first job is to make sure the franchise has a quarterback to build around. He has a great eye for quarterbacks, and there is no question the new Browns coaching staff -- yes, Eric Mangini will be gone -- will have coaches who can develop quarterbacks. After that, they have to get a running back and they need a top receiver. If the right quarterback isn't there for them with their first pick, then Holmgren can look on defense. They need a pass-rusher, a cornerback and some help at linebacker. The Browns are bad because they lack talent at a lot of positions and, in my opinion, the talent base got worse with some of the personnel decisions made in the past year.

Q: The Carolina Panthers are immensely talented at RB, have one good WR, a decent defense and no draft pick in the first round to shore up the QB or TE situation, add depth to WR or the defensive line. I think Jake Delhomme should be let go and John Fox should follow after allowing this team to go from 12-4 to what looks like a certain 6-10. Julius Peppers needs to go also. How can a man making $16.4 million be allowed to take plays off and hurt a team this talented? Marty Hurney should also get the boot, otherwise fans of the Panthers may want to implode the bandwagon and move on to teams who try to win.

Joseph in Iraq

A: The only problem with that premise is that the team will have nothing left if they follow your advice. There is no question the Panthers have to find a replacement for Delhomme, but they can't let him go until they find that replacement. Fox is in trouble and he might be fired. Still, he's a good coach. Peppers showed on Sunday night against the Vikings that he can dominate a game -- the Panthers can't afford to let him walk. I think Hurney will be back as GM. The defensive line still hasn't recovered from the trade of Kris Jenkins. Even though Jenkins didn't have full years in his two seasons with the Jets, the Panthers had a disaster at defensive tackle this season because they didn't have Jenkins' replacement. In this day and age in the NFL, tearing it up only makes it worse. You have to find the replacements before you let players go.

Q: In my opinion, the Packers weren't far off from beating the Vikings in both games this year. But now the offensive line has stepped up, the defense is playing outstanding (without Al Harris and Aaron Kampman) and they are getting good running from RB Ryan Grant. Do you think the Packers are a threat in the playoffs and do you think they could beat the Vikings if they meet again?

Mike in Hayesville, N.C.

A: Funny you should ask. I was talking with a few people in the past couple of days after the blowups emerged between Brett Favre and Brad Childress. You are on to something. The Vikings are the more talented team and they have Favre, but suddenly the Vikings are showing some vulnerability. Plus, I think Aaron Rodgers is getting more battle tested against the top quarterbacks and is starting to win some of those matchups. If the Packers meet the Vikings again in the playoffs, I'd favor the Vikings but I'd put an upset alert on that game.

Q: Although I love LaDainian Tomlinson, it's looking ever so likely that this is his last season as Charger. And there are rumors that Reggie Bush (from San Diego) might not renew with the Saints. What are the odds of Bush becoming a Charger next season as the replacement to LT? And is there a chance A.J. Smith would keep LT for one last season, so that Bush might learn a bit from the great LaDainian Tomlinson?

Alvaro in San Diego

A: I don't see a fit for Reggie Bush in San Diego. The Chargers have their Bush-type back if they keep Darren Sproles, and I think A.J. Smith will do everything he can to keep Sproles. It's sad to think there won't be a place for LT in San Diego next year, but it's going to be a tough fit. The Chargers will be in the market for an every-down back. I don't see Bush getting a new contract with the Saints, but San Diego won't be his next destination.

Q: How does the future of the Patriots look? They have some young players in the secondary, and a few great prospects on the O-line, but Brady and [Randy] Moss are starting to get older. Is this perennial dominance of New England solely based on the QB, or can they still win when he hangs it up for good?

Steve in Boston

A: The Patriots will be a playoff team as long as they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but there is some slippage in the roster that could hold them back from going to the Super Bowl. Belichick is still patching spots on the defense. The offensive line has some age. They don't have a third receiver and they get very little out of the tight ends in the passing game. But as long as Brady is there, the team has a great present and a great future.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer