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Do defenses really wear out over the course of a game? Do defenses benefit from long drives that give them more time to rest on the sideline? Guest columnist Ben Baldwin investigates.

07 Oct 2006

Game Previews: DAL-PHI, PIT-SD

by Aaron Schatz

This week's top NFL games are all about returns. Terrell Owens finally returns to Philadelphia after months of media hype. San Diego returns home, hoping to bounce back from a disappointing loss in Baltimore. And Pittsburgh returns from the bye week hoping a week of rest can cure whatever is ailing their star quarterback.


(Sunday, 4:15pm)

The problem in Philadelphia this week is not the absence of Terrell Owens from the lineup. The problem is the absence of numerous other players from the lineup.

Since Owens and Terry Glenn are the best tandem of starting receivers outside of Indianapolis, so Philadelphia's issues in the secondary are the most pressing. Starting cornerback Lito Sheppard has missed three games with an ankle injury, and his replacement, Roderick Hood, missed last week's contest with a heel injury. Without Sheppard and Hood, the Eagles have been forced to partner remaining starter Sheldon Brown with Joselio Hanson and Dexter Wynn, two inexperienced youngsters who are otherwise special teams players. As a result, the Eagles have given up more yardage to starting wide receivers than any defense in the league, and only Tennessee has allowed starting wideouts to catch a higher percentage of passes.

Sheppard may be back this week, but is that a good thing? Hood was far superior last year, in large part because Sheppard was playing hurt -- just like he will be this Sunday. Last year, according to the FO game charting project, Sheppard allowed 10.4 yards per pass when he was in coverage, the third worst figure among NFL cornerbacks (83 were ranked). Hood ranked number one overall, allowing just 4.9 yards per pass.

The Eagles need a strong pass rush to keep the quarterback from picking apart the weaknesses in the secondary, and they've had one this year, leading the NFC with 16 sacks. But the Dallas offensive line, considered a weakness going into the season, has done an excellent job of protecting the immobile Drew Bledsoe, allowing just three sacks. The line is also blocking well for running back Julius Jones, and Dallas ranks second running the ball according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) statistics. The Eagles are just 18th against the run.

That would normally presage a shootout between two powerful offenses, because the Eagles lead the league in offensive DVOA this season. But it's possible Donovan McNabb will have to take the field without his three biggest weapons. Early in the season, receiver Donte' Stallworth looked like the Owens replacement Philadelphia needed, but he caught just one pass last week before recent hamstring issues flared up again. He's listed as doubtful on the injury report. His starting partner, Reggie Brown, is questionable with two separate injuries, to his shoulder and a leg muscle. Starting running back Brian Westbrook missed last week's contest with swelling in his right knee, and is also listed as questionable for this week.

With perfect health, Philadelphia would be favored to win this game, particularly given a home-field advantage with some very emotional fans. But with every one of the Eagles who either misses this game or has to play hurt, the odds change, and the talent loss may be too much to overcome.

For a slightly less analytical look at this game, check out the T.O. Return to Philadelphia Drinking Game over on the FO FOX blog.


(Sunday, 8:15pm)

Based solely on this year's performance, this game is a mismatch. Our numbers have San Diego as the top team in the AFC and the most balanced team in the NFL. The Chargers are the only team to rank in the DVOA top ten for rush offense, rush defense, pass offense, pass defense, and special teams. Yes, they lost last week, but they lost on the road to a very good Baltimore team, partly because of a fluke aborted field goal. No loss is a good loss, but the game did nothing to indicate that the Chargers are going to decline over the long haul.

The defending champions, on the other hand, are actually below-average through three games. The Steelers aren't having any problems stopping their opponents. DVOA ranks them sixth in overall defense, and they're number one in stopping the run -- a pretty nice strength to have against the Chargers double-barreled running attack of LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner.

The offense, however, has been abysmal, and the reason is not hard to decipher. Two games make for a small sample size to pass judgment on, but Ben Roethlisberger has been one of the league's worst quarterbacks in 2006. He's completed less than half his passes and is already halfway to matching last year's interception total. Only Oakland's Andrew Walter has been less efficient.

Perhaps Roethlisberger has not been affected by his off-season motorcycle accident, but he's clearly been affected by his emergency appendectomy from early September. His passes are inaccurate, his ability to avoid the rush has diminished, and after some hits he actually gets up clutching his stomach. The bye week came at just the right time for the Steelers, who have to hope that a week of rest will return the Roethlisberger who led them to a Super Bowl title.

If Roethlisberger's problems continue, San Diego's defense can concentrate on stopping running back Willie Parker, who has been inconsistent so far. He sliced up Cincinnati for 133 yards on the ground, but a week earlier gained just 20 yards against Jacksonville. San Diego's strong front seven presents a tough test, although Parker's speed, combined with the weakness of the Chargers secondary, increase the probability of a huge highlight run if Parker can get past the front seven at some point.

As for using Parker in the passing game, forget about it. So far this year, the Chargers have allowed a grand total of four receiving yards to running backs.

Last year's meeting of these teams was one of the best games of the year, a back-and-forth battle that ended with the Steelers as two-point victors. If Roethlisberger comes back from the bye week with his pain diminished and his problems solved, we can expect a similar battle. If Roethlisberger comes back and plays as badly as he did in his first two starts of 2006, the Chargers will take home an easy victory, and the Steelers will face an important dilemma: Is backup Charlie Batch is better when healthy than Roethlisberger is when injured?

This article originally appeared in Friday's New York Sun.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 07 Oct 2006

43 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2006, 9:47pm by Justin Zeth


by ashok (not verified) :: Sat, 10/07/2006 - 10:14pm

Has Pittsburgh mentioned why Rothlisberger has been starting this whole time? It never made much sense to me.

by Yaxley (not verified) :: Sat, 10/07/2006 - 11:04pm

I'm guessing it's because, when he's healthy, he's a better QB than Batch. You do have to wonder if they rushed him back from the appendectomy too soon, if he's rusty because he missed so much of training camp from the motorcycle accident, or if it's some combination of the two. I like to consider myself a rational Steelers fan, so I haven't been calling for Batch yet, unlike many callers to the Pittsburgh radio stations I listen too. And I think that if he's okay, Roethlisberger should continue to play. But if there are some health problems going on that maybe we aren't aware about, they need to get Batch in there pronto and let Ben heal up.

by jim's apple pie (not verified) :: Sat, 10/07/2006 - 11:14pm

Aaron, just a little typo, but the Chargers are only at 2-1. It's surprising how many times I've seen them listed at 3-1 this last week.

I think Pittsburgh was way too quick to put Ben R. back in there. It's not like Batch stuck up the joint in the first game. They knew they had an early bye, they must have known that Ben was not 100%, and Batch had played reasonably well in the first game. Why not rest Ben until after the bye week, and then evaluate his readiness then? That would have seemed the most sensible option. Considering that they lost the two games anyway, I bet that Pittsburgh now wishes that they had followed that course instead. I think that with Batch playing the second game they probably would have won.

by Adam Gretz (not verified) :: Sat, 10/07/2006 - 11:26pm

The Steelers wouldn't have won the 2nd game with Otto Graham playing Quarterback.

by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Sat, 10/07/2006 - 11:34pm

I think people might be overrating Batch. When he played well and beat the Dolphins, everyone thought the Dolphins were SB contenders, but now it turns out they are just another bad team (Pass Defense DVOA of 20.3%)

by Alex (not verified) :: Sat, 10/07/2006 - 11:46pm

I think it might be a mental thing, to have your proper starting quarterback in there. At the very least, he's seeing what he needs to work on. The rest of the team has been quite good, and during the Cincy game, you could see clearly that he was making good decisions, but pretty much all of Roethlisberger's throws were slightly or worse off where he wanted them to be.
That inspires some hope, because if it's just that he's been weakened by his injuries, and it's something that he can just fix by increasing his arm strength, then they're pretty much set.
Haven't heard much about how well Rivers is doing, other than generalities. Is he making good decisions? Does he have good accuracy? Is his arm strong?

by mattman (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 12:12am

Sadly, I agree with the bottom line on Phi-Dal. The Eagles are just plain banged up in all the wrong places, and it's going to take a top-notch performance from McNabb and the O-line to hold off the Cowboys. Ugh. I just want this game to be over.

by Doug (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 12:33am

Per the Eagles web site and NFL.com, Reggie Brown is actually listed as Probable. Westbrook and Sheppard are Questionable, Hood and Stallworth are Doubtful.

I'd imagine Brown will play, as he has been at practice for most of the week. Same goes for Sheppard. Westbrook and the others have not practiced, I'd imagine they won't play.

by NF (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 12:58am


Bledsoe was the QB hit by defenders the most times last year (according to PFP 2006), but this year he has been hit the least (according to NFL play-by-play).

Given that the CW (and game-charting data apparently) is that Bledsoe is only a good QB when his protection is good because he has no ability to avoid defenders and he makes poor decisions under pressure, if the Eagles can reverse this trend and get to him often, he could still self-destruct, a la 2004 Bills vs. Steelers 2nd-string.

In other words, Parcells better have a lot of max protect and short passes planned to deter the Eagles from bringing the blitz.

(A side note: it would be an interesting statistical study to look at the single-game DPAR and DVOA of QBs in the DVOA-era and relate it to total sacks and/or QB hits in the game, to see if there are indeed QBs who play worse than the average QB in games where they are pressured often, or if all QBs play worse in equal relation to how much they are pressured.)

by Bobman (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 2:40am

Best WR tandem outside Indy...? While I am up for as much Colts-love as you all can stomach, how about Carolina and Arizona? Was it opinion or solely based on FO ratings? Or merely a convenient turn of phrase? No qualms, since I'm all for Reggie and Marvin, but just wondeirng.

by luz (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 2:48am


not to nit-pick but roethlisberger didn't miss any time in training camp...

by Alex (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 3:09am

I was thinking Smith/Johnson, with Carter too, or Boldin/L.Fitz should rank up there with Dallas and Indy...

by Smartmonies (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 3:12am

Bill Cowher stuck with kordell Stewart for 5 years before pulling him. The fact that there is talk about pulling a QB that led the league in yards per pass last year and topped that off with a remarkable run thru the playoffs is ridiculous. The only problem Ben has is his receivers. Ward is not the smae this year. He's got a hamstring problem that just isn't going away. He's not getting open. That leaves you with an undrafted Free agent names Nate Washington and Cedrick the entertainer Wilson Neither of thse guys have show the ability this year to hold onto a ball in a 3rd down situation. After all of this, you have rookie Holmes who often makes a right turn instead of left. Ben is forcing the ball more this year, but its not do to his gut. Receivers just aren't as open up to this point. No one is talking about Hines Ward. Please go back to the pre season a year ago and look at Big Ben's passing numbers. Pathetic. Yet when Hines ended his holdout andstarted the regular season everything changed. This year its like Hines hasn't even played. He's not open. He has had very little burst off the line of scrimmage. They are alos doubling him at times and the junk receivers around him can't cut the Mustard. If Hines can get healthy and Miller can continue to develop they will be fine. But you can't lose Plaxico Burress, Randle El & Hines ward in 2 seasons and expect a passing game not to struggle.

by johnt (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 3:43am

13: Nonsense. Even when he has receivers open, he doesn't put the ball anywhere near them. Two of his Cincinnati picks come to mind - one, Heath Miller was somewhat open but his pass was off by five yards to the side, right to the Bengals safety. Then in the second one, he had someone on a deep pass and underthrew by a good 10-15 yards - pick. He simply is not putting the ball where it should be. Which is good for the Steelers, I suppose, as that is a much more fixable problem than, say, a quarterback whose brains are permanently scrambled.

by KevinD (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 4:24am

not to nit-pick but that was before roethlisberger's appendix exploded...

And as for the Eagles--Westbrook hasn't practiced the last two weeks, and I'm fairly sure that has something to do with Sunday's game. Up until about two hours before the Packer game, he was reportedly ready to play. But they sat him at the last minute, I'm assuming because they a) didn't need him, and b) it's important that he's healthy against the Cowboys.

Lito Sheppard practiced all this week and he should play, same goes for Reggie Brown, as Doug said.

And I'm not quite sure how the game charting worked exactly, but could it have been that Lito Sheppard's yards per pass was higher because of a smaller number of passes thrown in his direction? If teams were passing away from him, the sample size might not be high enough (especially since he missed a lot of time due to injury last season).

Not having Hood is going to hurt, though. Hansen has absolutely sucked this year.

by Israel (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 4:24am

Why not rest Ben until after the bye week, and then evaluate his readiness then? That would have seemed the most sensible option. Considering that they lost the two games anyway, I bet that Pittsburgh now wishes that they had followed that course instead.

The Steelers wanted "Efficient Ben" for Cincinnati and had they not let him play against Jacksonville, they would have had "Rusty Ben." At least that's what they told themselves. Had the bye been Week 3, he no doubt would have sat in Week 2.

by Peter (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 4:35am

Well, if you base it on 2006 DVOA, it looks like this:
Cards - Fitzgerald 16th, Boldin 37th
Indy - Marvin 15th, Wayne 10th
Carolina - Smith 27th, Keyshaun 7th
Dallas - Glenn 3rd, T.O. 45th
Chicago - Moose 6th, Berrian 18th
J-E-T-S - Coles 22nd, Cotchery 9th.
Detroit - Roy Williams STUPID close to top 10 (14th), and Mike Furrey 23rd.
Houston - Andre Johnson 5th, Eric Moulds 2nd.

Based on that, it looks like Houston is definitely the best, with Chicago and Indy slightly behind. Obviously this is a small sample size, if you look back at last year, Houston, Chicago, and the Jets have no chance, Arizona's not even close, and Indy are clearly dominant. Next best team is Cinci, who have nothing so far in 2006. Based on stat consistency, I'd have to say Indy has it on lock.

For a more subjective look, I would say Indy is still the best, and after that it's kind of hard to say... if Chad were more like last year, maybe him and TJ. If Keyshawn keeps it up and Smith regains MVP form, it's probably Carolina. No matter what, we can't say Arizona is very good until they have a consistent quarterback. At present they just rack it up because Denny Green passes all the time (since he can't run). I guess the biggest question is... is the Houston passing attack for real?

by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 9:33am

In Roethlisberger's defense, at least one and possibly two of his interceptions happened because Santonio Holmes, who cannot play wide receiver in the NFL, ran the wrong route.

Switching over to the prosecution, two things seem obvious to me:

1. Roethlisberger's phenomenal pocket presence is gone. He resembles Drew Bledsoe a great deal, unloading the ball in a random direction when someone gets close to him. That could be because his abdomen hurts and he doesn't want to get hit. The Steelers hope so, because the alternative isn't pretty: It's because after the motorcycle wreck, his sense of invincibility is shattered and he's now more generally nervous than he once was. If he's still like this a month from now (the Steelers will be 2-5 in that scenario), we'll know.

2. The Steelers threw deep as often as anybody in the league last year, and threw deep with Batch in week 1, but with Roethlisberger it's mostly been dink-and-dunk stuff. Protecting a guy who can't throw deep, perhaps?

by luz (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 10:53am


roethlisberger's appendix is certainly a reason he could be rusty. however, missing training camp is not, since he didn't miss the preseason.


"because Santonio Holmes, who cannot play wide receiver in the NFL"

don't be ridiculous. the guy is a ROOKIE. rookie wide recievers always struggle. a rookie wide recievers play in the first 3 professional games of his career has no bearing on his long term potential to play the position. holmes will need to play in, at least, another 29 games before we could make a reasonable conclusion about his abilities as a pro reciever. he might be the biggest bust in steelers history, he might be the greatest steelers reciever ever but we won't know for awhile, either way.

besides, veteran recievers occasionally run the wrong route, too. just ask neil o'donnell...

by Harris (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 11:14am

The Eagles might be able to win this game without Stallworth, but not Westbrook. I'm terrified this game will drop them to 0-2 in the division and a game behind Dallas. Worse, they'll have to sweep the Redskins and beat Dallas and NY on the road to have any chance of winning the division. If they can't generate a huge pass rush this game could get ugly quick. I love my squad, but I might skip the game and spend the evening watching chick flicks with the Mrs.

by Kaveman (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 11:17am

#17: And that IS an interesting question... what's up with those Texans and Carr's QB rating? Is Kubiak truly a genius?

What chance of a close up, in-depth look at the Texans offense by an FO writer? After all, that has to be considered quite a surprise of the season thus far, yes?

by Fiver (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 11:43am

re: #18.1.

I agree whole-heartedly. Several times this season I have noticed him shy away from contact he used to step into or shrug aside. There's less standing tall and more turning sideways. We can only speculate about how he was mentally affected by the crash and the multiple surgeries, but the body language this year is noticably different from last.

Now, I'm not saying Big Ben is a chicken or anything, but he has laid a couple eggs this year.

(Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)

by Bencoder (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 11:55am

While I'm a Cowboys fan (previously undisclosed top-secret info), I have to agree that if we believe the FO system is for real we have to say Houston has the best overall WR tandem in the league so far. The fact that they are not a winning team has to be overlooked in the smaller picture.

by Bencoder (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 12:01pm

Incidentally, Harris, I feel the same way about following this game at all. I just can't stomach the idea of the kind of blow-ups Bledsoe is capable of despite all the problems with the Eagles squad.

The Eagles defense will probably come armed for Cowpoke despite all the evidence to the contrary.

We shall see.

by the fumble (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 12:14pm

#17 - That STUPID quote cracked me up.

by JMM (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 12:35pm

I am a big Big Ben fan, but I can't ignore another possibility: Has he lost motivation since playing in, and winning the Superbowl?

Ben has played 3 bad games in a row, not 2. Is this a continuation of the funk he demonstrated in the SB? This is a big game for him. If he doesn't have a good game, I don't see Pitt doing much at all this year. If he plays well they will be in the hunt.

by Adam Gretz (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 12:47pm

Bens appendix was removed about 4 days before the season opener. He was there in every single day of camp.

And Hines Ward is old hat. Heath Miller is where it's at. Or where it should be at?

by Adam Gretz (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 12:49pm

26. Ben had bad stats in the Super Bowl but he didn't play a bad game.

by queequeg (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 1:29pm

disclosure eagles fan: i think dallas wins because mcnabb, with only my observations as evidence, struggles with the 3-4. they might have a lot of trouble blocking the outside rush from runyan's side.

by queequeg (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 1:30pm

also, i hope to god the eagles can break up the screen on the weakside.

by Tim L (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 1:30pm

Dallas has gone to the five-wide formation a few times early in the season. If they do that today, it's an indication that Tony Sparano and Chris Palmer are confident in the ability of the offensive line to proctect Bledsoe, and are openly daring the Eagles to blitz.

The Eagles will need to get pressure from a four-man rush today to slow down the Dallas offense. If they have to bring blitzes, I expect Glenn to have a big day.

by Tim L (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 1:32pm

Greg Ellis’ conversion from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker has generally been successful, but he has struggled in coverage. If Westbrook plays, I would expect the Eagles to try and isolate him on Ellis. His ability to turn short passes into back-breaking plays has always been a source of apprehension for me. Even if he were to play, I still think Dallas wins; they’re deep and talented and are just starting to hit stride. But his absence makes it hard for the Eagles to win.

by Mike (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 2:03pm

PIT has started Ben early in the season because the alternate of sitting was even worse than starting him.

#1)Motorcycle accident recovery time ate into his pre-preseason conditioning.
#2)During the actual preseason his recovery allowed him to study the playbook but could not work on his timing, both with the O-line and his receivers...at least not to the extent that he, the coaches and team would have wanted.
#3) Then the appendectomy occurred...if he couldn't even get into shape and work on his timing preseason prior to this surgury, how could he do so now...let alone trying to put any finishing touches on his game?

So the team elected to put him on the field a little earlier than they probably wanted to...in order to have him less rusty..say in week 7...than in say week 9, if they had in fact held him out until his body had fully recovered from all the trama that had been inflicted it.

Thats my take on it...wrongly or rightly

by Harris (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 3:55pm

Bencoder, you're worried about Bledsoe, I'm worried about Westbrook -- let's just ignore the game. Come by my apartment and we can watch "Two if by Sea."

by Bencoder (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 11:19pm

And like the voice of Cassandra...another Bledsoe implosion prediction comes to pass....

I guess thousands of Buffalo fans can't be wrong.

by NF (not verified) :: Mon, 10/09/2006 - 12:18am


Thank you, thank you. I'll be here all year.

That puts me at 3 out of 4 for FO comment prediction, with two correct predictions of the Eli Manning playoff collapse more than a month apart from each other, a prediction of a Washington playoff upset over Seattle that was idiotic, and now a prediction that Bledsoe would implode in the face of the Eagles pass rush.

by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Mon, 10/09/2006 - 12:48am

And now we have our answer, to my satisfaction anyway. Ben Roethlisberger is the new Bert Jones.

by lastchance (not verified) :: Mon, 10/09/2006 - 12:58am

I didn't see any Martyball today against Pit. That game-winning drive where the Chargers marched down the field, picked up 1st down after 1st down looked really, really good.

by ashok (not verified) :: Mon, 10/09/2006 - 1:33am

To all of you who answered the question I asked about Pittsburgh starting Roethlisberger, thank you. I wasn't asking it to be self-righteous; people do things for a reason, whether the reason is right or wrong, and honestly, I think I can see the logic of starting him a little bit better now.

Still, I think we all agree that Pittsburgh made a pretty bad move by rushing him back. Teams win games, and while individual players help, if they're not ready they can hurt the cause, and worse yet, themselves.

by Flux (not verified) :: Mon, 10/09/2006 - 6:55am

"Has Pittsburgh mentioned why Rothlisberger has been starting this whole time?"

Having watched Sunday night's game, I think the answer's obvious. There's some sort of secret rule that his fumbles don't count as fumbles, since he laid two on the ground against SD and both led to ref huddles that produced obscure variations on the infamous tuck rule.

by DGL (not verified) :: Mon, 10/09/2006 - 2:16pm

Wow. I thought the bitching about officiating in the Steelers' games would only continue when they were actually, y'know, winning.

by Tim (not verified) :: Mon, 10/09/2006 - 5:39pm

Everybody is talking about Big Ben throwing bad passes this year. Certainly, there's truth to that. But let's give some credit to the defenses playing the Steelers for some of the turnovers.

Kevin Kaesviharn of the Cincinnati Bengals got his pick not because of Roethlisburger's bad pass, but because of time spent studying film:

“It was exactly the same play they ran in the playoff game, and they scored a TD to Hines,� said Kaesviharn of the five-yard pass to Hines Ward. “They tried to spread us out and opening up the middle of the field to free the middle linebacker and try to stick it in there. I happened to play the odds and be in the right spot at the right time.�

And it isn't as though the Chargers' secondary got lucky with their two interceptions. I think (most) NFL defenses are well coached, and I imagine every team in the league spent at least a little time dissecting the Steelers' offensive scheme.

The Steelers are still a very tough team with a lot of raw talent (see: Santonio Holmes), but with Hines Ward playing sub-par and the Jerome Bettis Security Blanket gone, the Steelers' offensive dynamic has changed. It might take the whole team a while to adjust.


by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Mon, 10/09/2006 - 9:47pm

The Steelers had a great offense last year because they had a great quarterback, and their offense sucks this year because their quarterback sucks. That's all there is to it. Roethlisberger is toast and will never be the same again.