The next time we see the Pittsburgh Steelers, they'll have franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) back under center. Large Benjamin is back at practice Monday, and by the time they're again playing a meaningful game -- the Steelers are on bye this week -- Ben and his teammates will have had two full weeks to reacclimate to one another.
Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers are 3-1, with the only loss coming to the Ravens, who, some will tell you, are the best team in football.
So how much better can the Steelers get?
Let's take a quick look at the numbers. Through four games, Dennis Dixon(notes) and Charlie Batch(notes) have combined for a passer rating of 77.5. That's not a sparkling number, but when you've got a murderous defense, it's good enough to get you to 3-1, even against a relatively tough schedule.
If Roethlisberger can return and play as well as he did last year, he'll replace that 77.5 passer rating with his 100.5. Obviously, you can't count on a repeat performance, but if Roethlisberger's a more mature guy and he's as well-prepared and focused as he says he is, you can't discount the possibility that he'll be even better, either.
For our purposes here, though, we'll play with last year's number. So if a team gets a quarterback that's roughly 23 passer rating points better than its current quarterback, how much does it improve?
Using this year's numbers, 23 points is just about the difference between Peyton Manning(notes) and Chad Henne(notes), or Tom Brady(notes) and Matt Ryan(notes), or Phillip Rivers and Seneca Wallace(notes). These are not trades you'd want to make.
Consider the Steelers running game, too. Rashard Mendenhall(notes) has grown into one of the league's best featured backs, piling up 411 yards through four games, a total good for second in the league. He just pounded out 79 yards and two touchdowns against the stingy Ravens. And he's done this while defenses have known that he was getting the ball, because no one is gameplanning around the marvelous arms of either Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch.
Take Rashard Mendenhall, and imagine him with bigger holes, more opportunities on draw plays and less attention from opposing defenses. And take that Steelers defense -- currently giving up a league-best 12.5 points per game -- and imagine it with more rest between drives, better field position, and the ability to blitz more freely with more leads. Imagine the Steelers, with all the things they've been doing to get to 3-1, doing them even better.
Of course, there is a pessimistic way to look at things. In a way, the Steelers' hot start has put Roethlisberger in the pressure cooker. Over the past couple of years, the Steelers have been criticized a bit for getting away from the running game, and now they're back to it, and they look strong. Should Ben be a little rusty, maybe take some unnecessary risks with the ball, and the Steelers drop a game or two ... considering all the other circumstances, it might not take much for the fanbase to turn violently against him.
But again, that's just looking for pessimism. I think it's considerably more likely that Roethlisberger returns as the dangerous, game-changing quarterback he's always been, and transforms the Steelers from a very good team into something scary.