Quick Reads: Big Ben’s injury could shift AFC’s balance of power

The Steelers now have to hope their 2015 season isn’t going up in flames while Ben Roethlisberger misses playing time with a knee injury.

Roethlisberger went down late in the third quarter when hit low by blitzing Rams safety Mark Barron, who had lost his balance while surging toward the star quarterback. Roethlisberger immediately dropped the football and clutched his leg before trainers helped him off the field. He was taken to the locker room on a cart and later left Pittsburgh’s locker room on crutches.

FS1 Insider Mike Garafolo confirmed a report that an MRI exam conducted Sunday night revealed Roethlisberger has a sprained medial collateral ligament. Garafolo added that there is a bone bruise and that the initial timetable for Roethlisberger’s return is four to six weeks. That is the best-case scenario considering the possibility the QB had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which would have ended his season, or a fractured bone.

One thing that isn’t ideal for the 2-1 Steelers: Their next game is Thursday against Baltimore. That puts Roethlisberger’s replacement in an especially difficult position with the quick turnaround.

Mike Vick is already behind other NFL backups. He didn’t enjoy the luxury of a full training camp in Pittsburgh. Having drawn scant interest in free agency, the 35-year-old Vick wasn’t signed until late August after Bruce Gradkowski (finger) landed on injured reserve and third-stringer Landry Jones showed he wasn’t ready for the job after extensive preseason playing time.

Vick’s performance against the Rams can’t put Steelers fans at ease. He completed five of six passes for 38 yards but was sacked twice and the Steelers were forced to punt on his first three possessions.

The best thing that can be said is that Vick didn’t make the same costly mistake as St. Louis quarterback Nick Foles, who was intercepted by Steelers safety Will Allen on a bad overthrow with roughly three minutes remaining. Allen’s 20-yard return put Pittsburgh in position for the 41-yard Josh Scobee field goal that gave the Steelers a 12-6 lead and helped clinch the victory.

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley will probably have to scale back his game plan for the Ravens given Vick’s lack of experience in his system. There also may be some tweaking to account for Vick being a left-handed thrower.

The Steelers have faced difficult scenarios before without Roethlisberger and survived. For example, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon were a combined 3-1 as starters when Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games in 2010. That squad ended up reaching the Super Bowl.

The 2015 Steelers are different. The defense is no longer as dominant while being rebuilt and can’t be relied upon to carry the load in Roethlisberger’s absence. The offense is this team’s strength.

The fact Vick is now surrounded by the best skill-position talent of his 13-year NFL career could help him reverse what has been a four-season slide. The Steelers also can rely more on their rushing attack with Le’Veon Bell now back from his two-game drug suspension to team with DeAngelo Williams.

Vick need not press to make plays on his own as he did during his younger years in Atlanta. The key for Vick is just doing his part to make sure Pittsburgh stays in the AFC North race until Roethlisberger returns. That date may very well be Nov. 1 at home against the team looking poised to run away with the division – the 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals.

Cincinnati 28, Baltimore 24: For the first time in franchise history, the Ravens have opened a season 0-3. A porous secondary is largely to blame. Baltimore couldn’t stop Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (383 yards and three touchdowns) and wide receiver A.J. Green (10 catches for 227 yards and two scores) from enjoying career days.  The duo connected for the game-winning touchdown with 2:10 remaining after Green again beat Jimmy Smith, who is Baltimore’s best cornerback. An 80-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to Green also featured three missed tackles as the latter blazed downfield for the score. The Ravens wasted an amazing effort by wide receiver Steve Smith, who carried a one-dimensional offense with 13 catches for 186 yards and two scores. Ravens first-year offensive coordinator Marc Trestman must find a way to get running back Justin Forsett on track. After gaining 1,266 yards last season, Forsett has 124 through the first three games. He was held to 13 yards on 10 carries by the Bengals.

Houston 19, Tampa Bay 9: With reliable kicking, the Buccaneers would have pulled off their second straight road upset. After making a 58-yard field goal in the second quarter, rookie Kyle Brindza missed attempts of 41, 33 and 57 yards as well as an extra point. The Texans sorely missed running back Arian Foster (groin) during their 0-2 start, but Alfred Blue picked up the slack against the Bucs with 139 rushing yards and one touchdown on 31 attempts. Foster could be back next Sunday at Atlanta.

Oakland 27, Cleveland 20: Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio did something that his five predecessors had failed to accomplish since December 2009 — win a game on the East Coast. The Raiders (2-1) also have consecutive victories for the first time in three seasons. With his team losing, Browns head coach Mike Pettine will get second-guessed for reinstating Josh McCown as his starting quarterback in place of Johnny Manziel. McCown, though, wasn’t close to Cleveland’s biggest problem on Sunday. The offensive line allowed five sacks to a Raiders defense that entered without having posted any in the first two games and the defense was gouged by Oakland’s “Triplets” – quarterback Derek Carr (20 of 32 passing for 314 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions), running back Latavius Murray (26 carries for 139 yards and one touchdown) and rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper (eight catches for 134 yards).

Minnesota 31, San Diego 14: Adrian Peterson will remember Sunday for a lot more than his 126-yard, two-touchdown performance. His wife gave birth to a son just hours before kickoff. The Chargers are being besieged by offensive line injuries for a second consecutive season. Philip Rivers’ frustration at his lack of protection Sunday boiled over when the quarterback berated right guard D.J. Fluker after one second-half series.

New England 51, Jacksonville 17: Although rarely upset by inferior opposition, New England entered with a 2-14 record against the spread in their past 16 games as a double-digit favorite. The Patriots didn’t mess around this time, jumping to a 20-3 halftime lead against a Jaguars squad that entered as a 14.5-point underdog. Tom Brady’s assault on the record books continued when he became the fastest quarterback in NFL history to throw 400 touchdown passes. Brady also tied retired Patriots tackle Bruce Armstrong for the most games played in franchise history (211). The Patriots didn’t commit a turnover and scored on their first nine possessions until Brady’s backup Jimmy Garoppolo came in late to run out the clock. Jacksonville’s inability to play competitively shows how far this franchise still must go before regaining NFL respectability.

Philadelphia 24, New York Jets 17: There is life for Philadelphia’s running game after all. Ryan Mathews filled in capably for the injured DeMarco Murray (hamstring) with a 25-carry, 108-yard effort as the Eagles finally got rolling on the ground after producing a league-low 70 overall yards in the first two games. Philadelphia also was superior on special teams with Darren Sproles scoring on an 89-yard punt return. Injuries at wide receiver already were hurting the Jets but Brandon Marshall compounded the problem when attempting a lateral that was fumbled. Philadelphia converted the turnover into a one-yard Sproles touchdown for a 24-0 lead late in the first half. Sproles continues to make NFL history. He is the only player to have scored at least 15 touchdowns running, 25 receiving and five on punt returns.

NFL WEEK 17

Carolina 27, New Orleans 22: The Panthers are 3-0 for the first time since 2003 thanks to another big game by tight end Greg Olsen against the Saints. Olsen had a career day with eight receptions for 134 yards and two touchdowns as Carolina overcame an early 10-0 deficit. Saints quarterback Luke McCown did just fine in replacing the injured Drew Brees (shoulder) although he did commit a costly turnover when Panthers cornerback Josh Norman made a spectacular end-zone interception late in the fourth quarter. New Orleans’ bigger problems remain an inconsistent running attack and maligned defense that have contributed to the Saints starting 0-3 for the second time in four seasons.

Indianapolis 35, Tennessee 33: The Colts are still a greatly flawed team – particularly along the defensive line and injury-plagued secondary — but one thing this roster doesn’t lack is heart. A lesser squad would have folded as Tennessee held a 27-14 lead in the fourth quarter. But thanks to two Andrew Luck touchdown passes in a 56-second span, the Colts avoided a 0-3 start and are now tied with all the other AFC North squads atop the division at 1-2. Colts safety Dwight Lowery was the defensive hero. He returned one Marcus Mariota interception for a touchdown and set up the game-winning score with another.

Atlanta 39, Dallas 28: Jerry Rice is the only wide receiver who has ever won NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors. Atlanta’s Julio Jones could very well become the second if his record-setting start continues. No player has ever opened a season with 34 catches in the first three games like Jones. He torched the Cowboys for 164 yards and two touchdowns Sunday as the Falcons overcame a two-touchdown deficit by holding Dallas scoreless in the second half. Amazingly, Jones might not have been Atlanta’s most impressive offensive player. Running back Devonta Freeman, who was given the start with Tevin Coleman (ribs) out, gashed Dallas for 141 yards and three touchdowns. The absence of quarterback Tony Romo (clavicle) and wide receiver Dez Bryant (foot) was felt with Dallas fielding an offense that lacked big-play punch and a productive running game once the Falcons shut down Joseph Randle after a hot start. Cole Beasley was the only wide receiver with a reception from Brandon Weeden, who didn’t have a completion longer than 22 yards in a 22-of-26 passing performance.

Buffalo 41, Miami 14: One of Sunday’s strangest sights was seeing billionaire investor Warren Buffet on the Miami Dolphins sideline pregame wearing an Ndamukong Suh jersey with shoulder pads underneath. Maybe the Dolphins should have signed Buffet to play — he couldn’t have done much worse than a squad whose defensive and offensive line woes have continued from last season under embattled head coach Joe Philbin. The Bills bounced back from last week’s undisciplined loss to New England by pounding Miami for 151 rushing yards and keeping quarterback Tyrod Taylor sack-free in his 21-of-29, 277-yard passing performance.

Arizona 47, San Francisco 7: The 2015 season will go a long way toward determining whether San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is truly a franchise quarterback. His performance Sunday didn’t help Kaepernick’s cause. Two of his first four passes were intercepted and returned for touchdowns to help trigger the Cardinals rout. Kaepernick proceeded to throw two more INTs and finished 9-of-19 passing for 67 yards. Arizona’s offense carried its weight with Larry Fitzgerald and running back Chris Johnson each scoring twice while topping the 100-yard mark in receiving and rushing respectively. The last time Arizona (3-0) had consecutive victories while scoring 40-plus points was in 1969.

Seattle 26, Chicago 0: The Bears were shutout for the first time since December 2002 with Jimmy Clausen’s career record as a starting quarterback falling to 1-11 as the replacement for the injured Jay Cutler (hamstring). Clausen completed 9 of 17 passes for a paltry 63 yards. The Seahawks are still foundering on offense because of a subpar offensive line. The unit also suffered a blow when Marshawn Lynch was forced to leave the game with a hamstring injury. The special teams, though, are in fine form with rookie Tyler Lockett notching his second special-teams touchdown in three games. Lockett’s 105-yard score to open the second half marked the longest kickoff return in franchise history.