- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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What makes Ben Roethlisberger's return to Heinz Field easier is how his teammates had his back.
The Steelers' 3-1 start sets up the perfect way for Roethlisberger to be received by Pittsburgh fans when he makes his 2010 debut Sunday against the Cleveland Browns in Week 6. Had the Steelers gone 1-3, fans and teammates probably would have held it against Roethlisberger, and rightfully so.
Roethlisberger's selfishness off the field left Pittsburgh vulnerable to a bad start. Now, he can come back from his four-game suspension as the leader of the offense and possibly ignite the team's season.
The Steelers gutted through what turned out to be the toughest early-season schedule. Their four opponents -- Atlanta, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Baltimore -- have a combined 14-5 record. Were it not for a last-minute drive by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in Week 4, the Steelers would be 4-0.
What Roethlisberger and the Steelers have to decide is if they want to remain a running team. They proved they could win with good defense and Rashard Mendenhall power runs. The Steelers averaged 30.8 runs a game during Roethlisberger's absence, and the defense seemed to gain emotional energy from that type of ball-control offense.
In the past couple of years, the Steelers have been criticized for getting away from the run, letting Roethlisberger set the agenda with his passing.
Roethlisberger said he's a different person from this experience. We'll see if he is a different and better quarterback, too.
From the inbox
Jarett in New York
A: Merriman would be an interesting fit on the Saints, but I'm not totally sold it would happen. Merriman is more natural in a 3-4 defense and the Saints, even though they run a lot of hybrid 3-4 packages, are primarily a 4-3. I could see him fitting more on the Patriots than the Saints. What the Saints need more than anything else is a weakside linebacker. At the moment, Merriman hasn't regained his explosiveness, so he would be more of a fit on the strong side. Merriman (calf) was put on the reserve-injured list Wednesday, meaning the Chargers must release him when he becomes healthy.
Q: I really don't know what to make of Carson Palmer so far this season. I see flashes of brilliance, but then as soon as I feel reassured I see him make some questionable throws. He has managed to keep his interceptions down, but there are times when his accuracy just doesn't seem to be what it was earlier in his career. Do you think that Cincinnati should focus more on the run (I would love to see Cedric Benson get more carries) or stay with the aerial attack? Also, with the Bengals' brutal schedule coming up, do you think Palmer will be able to carry the team through that stretch?
Ike in Cincinnati
A: You have identified the dilemma that has to be defined by coach Marvin Lewis. Palmer feels more natural in an offense that throws for 4,000 yards a season. Lewis, a defensive coach, prefers a running offense that gets Benson 20 to 25 carries a game. Something seems to be missing in the Bengals' passing game. Palmer hasn't been as accurate as normal. His 59.3 completion percentage doesn't match his skills or the receiving talent around him. The loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5 proved something is wrong. Benson got his carries. Terrell Owens caught his passes. Yet, Palmer threw two inexcusable interceptions in the final minutes that handed the Bucs the game. And you're right about the schedule. It does get tougher. During this bye week, Palmer and the coaching staff better figure out what is wrong and get it fixed quickly.
Q: It seems to me that you have something against Michael Vick. I thought it was incredible that you thought Andy Reid shouldn't have made the switch to Vick. It's obvious Vick is a better QB than Kevin Kolb, yet you continue to down him. What was your reasoning, without the personal hate you have for his past?
Elijah in Atlanta
A: Elijah, I'm apparently not the only one. The Eagles -- the team that signed Vick, promoted Kolb and traded McNabb -- named Kolb the starting quarterback in the offseason. Plus, they gave him a $12 million contract extension. They were willing to trade Vick during the offseason, if they had the right offer. In other words, the Eagles believed Kolb was the better quarterback until they got into the regular season. Listen, I'm happy for Vick. Before getting hurt, he played great. But Vick's style of play leads to injuries. Plus, he navigates the Eagles into more of a running offense, and those types of offenses find it harder to get more than eight or nine wins. Times have changed since Vick was a franchise quarterback in Atlanta. The NFL has become more of a passing league. On this one, we'll probably end up disagreeing.
Q: Do you really think New England will still be just as good as everyone says after the Randy Moss trade? I understand the Patriots won convincingly against Miami on the road, but their offense got a lot of help that night.
Nick in New York
A: They aren't as good on offense without Moss, but they are still good. If I were the Patriots' general manager, I would have never traded Moss, but I'm not the GM. They have Tom Brady, a player who can make any roster move work. As the season progresses, Bill Belichick will start cleaning up some of the problems with their defense. They have a lot of young talent. My biggest concern is the possible loss of Brandon Tate, if he hits a physical wall by midseason with his knee. Tate is their deep speed. Without him, Brady's offense will have to concentrate more in the middle of the field. I still think they will win the AFC East, but I'm not as convinced as I was before. Brady is the key. Getting back Deion Branch doesn't replace Moss because he's not a deep threat. Branch is close to Brady, so the move gives him a receiver he can trust. Brady will make it work. He always does.
Q: Given that the Cleveland Browns drafted Colt McCoy in the second round last April, how will it impact the franchise if it gets a top-five pick in 2011 and takes a quarterback? Is that a step forward or another three-year sentence of quarterback development?
Peter in Cleveland
A: If the Browns get the right quarterback in the top five, it can only help. When Ron Wolf was the general manager in Green Bay, he felt it was always a good thing to draft a quarterback every year. He had Mike Holmgren as his head coach, and Holmgren was great at developing those quarterbacks behind Brett Favre. If the coaching staff can develop McCoy for a couple of seasons, the Browns could trade him if they get Andrew Luck, Jake Locker or Ryan Mallett in the upcoming draft. There is no guarantee McCoy will be a great starting quarterback. If the Browns can get a top quarterback prospect next spring, they could be set for a long time. The Browns didn't figure they would be forced to play McCoy this early. The ankle injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace mean McCoy will be on the field in Pittsburgh. That's the worst possible spot. So much for having a protected rookie season.
Q: How is Vincent Jackson able to become a free agent at the end of the season if he is to hold out for the entire season as he says he will? I thought that if you don't play a certain number of games in the final year of a contract, you are still obligated to your current team. I remember when Joey Galloway held out for the Seahawks, then returned in like Week 7 or 8 so he would be eligible for free agency. Also, isn't there a chance Jackson can ruin chemistry just as Galloway did that year for Seattle?
Justin in Selah, Va.
A: Great question, and you pinpointed what is going to happen next in the Jackson saga. He's going to report for the final six games of the regular season to get an accredited season. If he holds out all season, his contract is tolled, which means he won't move a year toward free agency. Clearly, this would be a disputable point that would have to be resolved by a grievance. The only reason he didn't qualify for free agency is because of the uncapped year and the six-year requirements for free agency. At least by showing up, he can be sure to become a free agent next year. There will be no trade by next Tuesday's trade deadline.
Q: Mike Shanahan has always centered his offense around the running game. That has been almost non-existent this year with the Redskins. Is this more a product of a lack or reliable running backs or has his coaching style changed because of the weapons he has with the Redskins?
Jon in Fort Collins, Colo.
A: When you watched the Redskins at training camp, you could see they were slow in the backfield and lacked explosiveness. They had a lot of older running backs. They cut Willie Parker. They cut Larry Johnson. Then, they lost Clinton Portis to a groin injury. They are relying on Ryan Torain, and that isn't working out well. Shanahan loves to run the ball and set up the play-action passing game. Offensive line problems have affected the running offense too. Shanahan is still learning about the talents of this team. To be 3-2, though, against that tough early schedule is a good sign of progress.
Q: What do you think of the Bucs' rebuilding plan so far? They seem to have found a quarterback in Josh Freeman and WR Mike Williams looks like he has Pro-Bowl potential in his future. If LeGarrette Blount proves to be productive at RB (I think he will prove to be a draft-day steal due to his off-field problems), Arrelious Benn eventually becomes the receiver everyone expects him to be and the defense continues to progress, how far away are they from contending?
Gary in Kinnelon, N.J.
A: They are doing great. Don't be totally fooled by the 3-1 record and start thinking playoffs. I remember some fans felt the Bucs were going to beat the Steelers in Week 3, and you saw what happened there. I like how resilient this team is. Freeman is the real deal. The Bucs drafted two core defensive tackles and two core receivers this year. They are going in the right direction. That was a great come-from-behind win over the Bengals last Sunday. I thought they were two or three drafts away from being good. Maybe they just need a good draft next year to put them over the top.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Steelers' fast start allows Ben Roethlisberger to be cheered, not jeered, when he returns to Heinz Field on Sunday, John Clayton writes in his latest mailbag.