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I expect Ben Roethlisberger to be a different quarterback when he plays the New England Patriots this time around. I had a chance to spend time with him during the offseason, and I was struck by his intelligence and humility. He does an excellent job of processing his mistakes and realizing what he has to do to rectify them in the future.
After last season's playoff run, he realized that later in the season, defenses were dropping more guys in coverage and playing more zone coverage to take advantage of his lack of patience. This season it's easy to see that he's taking what the defense is giving him and is putting up fantastic numbers because of it. His passer rating this season is a staggering 153.6, and that's a testament to his increased maturity as a quarterback.
In addition to his patience, his footwork has improved this season. He slides within the pocket to give himself a throwing lane just like the great ones do. Every great quarterback has excellent footwork -- whether it's a Hall of Famer like Dan Marino or a future Hall of Famer like Peyton Manning. It's vitally important for a quarterback to be able to work within the pocket efficiently and the key to that is the footwork. That's why an immobile quarterback like Manning can find time to hit his receivers when he's getting heavily rushed.
Big Ben wanted to work on becoming a better drop-back quarterback because he had problems working from the pocket last season. There were times when he relied a little too much on his natural athleticism to get him out of trouble and opposing teams were able to key in on that.
Of course, there are two more big reasons we've seen such marked improvement from Roethlisberger this season. The first is that he was able to take the majority of snaps during training camp. Even though he played pretty much the entire season last year, he wasn't the starting quarterback going into the season so Tommy Maddox, last season's opening day starting quarterback, received the majority of snaps. So in a way, last season was kind of like on-the-job training for Big Ben. This training camp he was able to get them all and we're starting to see the fruit of his work.
The second reason Roethlisberger is looking so good is the play of RB Willie Parker. He's been the most impressive back I've seen in a while because he runs with a lot of power and explosiveness. He doesn't try to juke anybody, but instead tries to split them by putting the pedal to the metal. His speed keeps defenders from getting clean shots at him. I said in the beginning of the year he'd be the difference for them and that's been very true.
There's no limit to how much having an explosive running back in the backfield can help a quarterback. Parker gives opposing defenses one more headache to worry about when planning for the Steelers, because now they have a home-run threat in their offense. In years past, the Steelers were a very methodical team that plodded and pounded opposing teams and generally wore them down before beating teams in the fourth quarter.
Now they have a running back who can turn a third-and-1 into a 60-yard touchdown run, and that gives an amazing amount of confidence to a quarterback. When a team has a back with that type of ability, it becomes difficult for safeties to do their job. When a defense sets up in the running game, they are talking about "fits," which means that certain players are responsible for a certain gap. When you have a back who can go the distance, the safety is caught between a rock and a hard place. He has to decide whether to be aggressive and possibly be beaten, or to allow the back to attack the edges and possibly turn it upfield rather quickly.
Those are the reasons the Steelers are playing excellent football and are one of the top two teams in the NFL -- with the other team also residing in the state of Pennsylvania.
Joe Theismann, a Super Bowl-winning QB and former NFL MVP, is a regular contributor to Insider.
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