"Good spaghetti sauce covers up bad noodles."
That's what my old Houston Texans offensive coordinator, Chris Palmer, used to tell me before games. The translation: Good quarterback play can mask offensive deficiencies. Unfortunately for the reeling Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3), they don't have good noodles or spaghetti sauce right now.
Let's start with the sauce, Ben Roethlisberger. The 18th-year veteran is more of a liability than an asset for Pittsburgh's offense right now. It's that simple. Through four games, the Steelers' offense ranks 28th in points, 27th in total yards, 16th in passing yards and dead last in rushing yards. Big Ben has registered some of his worst single-season marks ever in completion percentage (64.1), passing yards per attempt (6.1), TD-to-INT ratio (4:4) and passer rating (78.9). Several factors have led to his poor production, but the main one is he no longer brings a physical presence to the position. Roethlisberger has always been more of a reactionary quarterback than a pre-snap wiz, but immobility in the pocket has really hindered his play of late. He looks like he's going to fall over every time he has to move one or two steps off his intended dropback, and frankly, it's hard to watch. I always enjoyed watching Big Ben in his prime because, as a former NFL quarterback, I know how hard it is to shrug off defensive linemen and be almost untackleable in the pocket. But at age 39, Roethlisberger is clearly feeling the effects of Father Time. And Mike Tomlin says his quarterback is dealing with a hip issue, which could amplify a decline that's been ongoing for some time now.
During Pittsburgh's 11-0 start to the 2020 season, Big Ben completed 67.5 percent of his throws, while posting nice figures in TD-to-INT ratio (25:6) and passer rating (99.0). Coming off major elbow surgery, though, his arm strength was noticeably weakened. This appeared to catch up with him as the Steelers crumbled down the stretch -- and the struggles have carried over into the 2021 campaign. Over his last eight regular-season starts going back to last December, Roethlisberger's completion percentage (62.5), TD-to-INT ratio (12:8) and passer rating (80.6) have all plummeted. Most importantly, Pittsburgh has gone 2-6.
Of course, it's not all Ben's fault. Poor play from his supporting cast (the noodles) has accelerated Roethlisberger's deterioration in 2021. The offensive line is far from the dominant unit we're used to seeing in Pittsburgh, undermining the Steelers' efforts in the ground game and through the air. Meanwhile, after a splashy rookie campaign, wideout Chase Claypool is experiencing struggles similar to those JuJu Smith-Schuster encountered after Antonio Brown's departure: Opposing defenses are giving Claypool the attention of a No. 1 receiver, and nobody -- JuJu included -- is doing enough to take pressure off the second-year pro. Adding injury to insult, Claypool just missed a game with a balky hammy.
So, where do Roethlisberger and the last-place Steelers go from here? In the next two weeks, Pittsburgh hosts the Broncos (3-1) and Seahawks (2-2) at Heinz Field, with the latter game being a Sunday Night Football affair. Then comes the Week 7 bye, followed by a road trip to Cleveland. If the aging QB doesn't play better and the Steelers continue to struggle, that bye week could be a dramatic one in the Steel City, with Tomlin forced to consider doing what was long unthinkable: benching Ben Roethlisberger.
Yes, I know Tomlin remains squarely in his quarterback's corner at the moment. Asked Tuesday if he still believes Roethlisberger is the best option for Pittsburgh's offense, the Steelers coach didn't stutter: "Absolutely. What he does and what he's done makes me really comfortable in saying that." But what if what he does continues to pale in comparison to what he's done? You can't just will a late-career renaissance into existence. And you can't go into that Browns game -- facing that defense -- with a quarterback who significantly limits your offense.
If the Steelers do eventually choose to make a quarterback change, they have two options: Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins. Rudolph, a fourth-year pro who is 5-4 as a starter, has a big arm and looked improved during his preseason action in August. As the current QB2, there's a real chance he gets another opportunity to start. On the other hand, Haskins also showed promise in the preseason, managing the offense and making the right reads. The former No. 15 overall pick obviously wore out his welcome quickly in Washington, getting cut before the conclusion of his second season with the franchise. But the Steelers signed Haskins in January and took a liking to him. I had a conversation with Pittsburgh QBs coach Mike Sullivan this offseason, and he mentioned Haskins without me bringing him up, saying he thinks the former Ohio State star can be a starter again in the NFL. Neither backup has an established track record of excellence, obviously, but both at least offer the potential to help create more offense and play above the Xs and Os. That's a possibility that Roethlisberger, closing in on his 40th birthday, just no longer provides.
Coming into the season, it felt like 2021 could be Big Ben's swan song. Now, it seems like he might not even make it through the bye.
Top 15 Offensive Players
Each week in the 2021 campaign, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. Rankings are based solely on this season's efforts. The Week 5 pecking order is below.
NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from last week's rankings.
Rodgers has looked every bit the MVP he was in 2020 over the last three games. Since a dismal Week 1, he has posted a 67.7 completion percentage, 254.7 pass yards per game, an 8:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 119.4 passer rating. Thanks to Rodgers' turnaround, the Packers sit comfortably at the top of the NFC North.
Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense needed a bounce-back performance after a pair of lackluster and mistake-filled losses to close out September, and they got one Sunday. The convincing win over the Eagles marked his 40th win in his 50th career start, tying Hall of Famer Ken Stabler for most wins in a quarterback's first 50 career starts since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. He also ranks first among all QBs in their first 50 starts when it comes to passing yards (15,370), passing TDs (128) and passer rating (109.5).
The Seahawks were outplayed by the 49ers in the first half on Sunday, but nothing seems to rattle Wilson. The veteran quarterback made the necessary adjustments coming out of halftime, and Seattle scored 21 unanswered points to help Wilson avoid losing three straight games for the first time in his career. It won't get easier this Thursday, when the 'Hawks will host a Rams team looking to rebound from its first loss.
Sunday's win over the Los Angeles Rams felt like a long time coming for Murray and Kliff Kingsbury, who entered the game 0-4 vs. Sean McVay's squad. Murray played extremely well in a hostile environment and frustrated the Rams' defense for most of the game. After posting a 75.0 completion percentage, 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio and 120.3 passer rating in the statement win, Murray's squarely in the MVP conversation nearly a quarter of the way through the regular season.
Adams had a pedestrian performance against the Steelers with six catches and 64 receiving yards, but he still ranks fifth in the league in receiving yards (373) heading into Week 5.
The two-time rushing champ continued to be the engine that makes the Titans' offense go with a whopping 33 carries for 157 rush yards and one TD on Sunday, but it wasn't enough to overcome the loss of A.J. Brown and Julio Jones as the AFC South leaders fell to the New York Jets. Through four weeks, Henry has nearly 150 rushing yards more than the next-closest back (Nick Chubb, 362).
Kelce's 23 receiving yards on four catches against the Eagles were his fewest receiving yards in a game since Week 1 of 2018 vs. the Chargers. It also ended a 14-game streak of at least five receptions and 50 receiving yards (including the 2020 playoffs). But don't kid yourself: Kelce is still one of the top TEs in the game right now.
Kupp was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for September after totaling 367 receiving yards and five TDs on 25 catches over three games. While he struggled some against the Cardinals on Sunday -- he had a drop and Matthew Stafford missed him on a few throws -- Kupp still ranks among the top three in the league in targets (46, first), receptions (30, T-second), receiving yards (431, third) and TD catches (six, first).
Through the first three weeks of the season, Derek quarterbacked the top-ranked offense in football while averaging an NFL-best 401 passing yards per game. But the Raiders just couldn't get going Monday night in Los Angeles until the second half. Derek threw for a season-low 196 yards and took a season-high four sacks. Spotting Justin Herbert and Co. 21 points isn't a winning formula.
After a quiet few weeks statistically, Hill had a huge outing against the Eagles, who didn't have an answer for the Chiefs' WR1. Hill led all players in Week 4 with 11 receptions, 186 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
The Panthers' top-ranked defense looked anything but imposing against Dak and the 'Boys, who scored 36 points and racked up 433 total offensive yards in Sunday's win. Prescott has come into this season with something to prove after missing most of 2020, and he has looked better and better every time he's taken the field. He's the reason the Cowboys sit at 3-1 and are in the NFC East driver's seat.
Allen threw a pick on the first play of the game, but the way he rebounded to lead the Bills to a shutout victory shows the growth of his maturity and leadership. The fourth-year QB has seen an improvement over the last two games after struggling out of the gate.
- Weeks 1-2: 56.0 comp. percentage, 449 pass yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 77.9 passer rating
- Weeks 3-4: 72.2 comp. percentage, 606 pass yards, 6 TDs, 1 INT, 119.3 passer rating
His upward trajectory couldn't have come at a better time, with prime-time away games against Kansas City and Tennessee -- two AFC powers in recent years -- next on the docket before Buffalo's Week 7 bye.
The Chargers' second-year passer was electric in prime time, throwing three TD strikes in the first half against the Raiders. He proved the moment wasn't too big in the fourth quarter when he orchestrated a 10-play, 58-yard drive that resulted in an Austin Ekeler TD run to put the Chargers up by 14 points with just over five minutes left to play. The Bolts are heating up, with Herbert logging seven pass TDs, zero INTs and a 116.3 passer rating since Week 3.
We were all a little silly to think Bill Belichick wouldn't keep Brady and the Bucs' offense in check for most of the game. And while Brady had one of his lowest statistical outputs of the season against the Patriots (51.2 completion percentage, 269 pass yards, zero TDs, zero INTs, 70.8 passer rating), he became the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and the Bucs improved to 3-1.
Since starting the season with a sparkling 10/105/1 line, Waller's yardage production has declined each week. That said, he did score his second touchdown of the year on Monday night, hauling in a jump ball with aplomb. The man remains a mismatch nightmare with his athleticism at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds.