We've seen that Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can play offense.

Now, we'll see if he can play defense.

Can he guard himself from the flattery flung his way, steel himself from praise after an eye-catching start to his rookie season? He'll surely be tested.

"He's the best prospect I have seen in 10 to 15 years," Dallas Cowboy Coach Bill Parcells, whose team plays host to the Steelers on Sunday, told Pittsburgh reporters this week. Later, he said: "I haven't seen anybody come in the league like that. The only guy that I can say came in and in the first year started playing like he's playing is Dan Marino."

It's one thing to get off to a fantastic start the way Roethlisberger has -- winning his first three starts since taking over for an injured Tommy Maddox in Week 2 -- but it's another to elicit comparisons to Marino this early.

"You have to look at it the other way," said Roethlisberger, one of only six quarterbacks since the 1970 merger to win his first three starts. Parcells has "been around a long time, so you never know. It could be gamesmanship; it could be sincere."

Probably, it's a little of both. Statistically speaking, comparing the two quarterbacks isn't absurd. Roethlisberger's 64.8 percent completion percentage is better than Marino's rookie-record 58.9 percent; Marino finished his rookie season with a rookie-record 96.0 passer rating, just a bit better than Roethlisberger's 91.3. And, like Marino, Roethlisberger is money when it comes to making the big play.

Already, Roethlisberger has completed five passes of at least 30 yards, and he's third in the league in yards per completion, 13.05, right behind David Carr's 14.32 and Tom Brady's 14.28.

"Oh, man, the kid keeps getting better and better," Steeler wide receiver Hines Ward said of Roethlisberger, drafted 11th last spring. "The more reps he gets with the first group, he'll get a feel for the play-calling and what it's like going week to week studying defenses. He's shown a lot of poise. He's going to be good."

Don't expect Maddox to get his job back once his elbow is nursed back to health in a couple weeks. Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher didn't flinch when it came to replacing a struggling Kordell Stewart two games into the 2002 season, even though Stewart made the Pro Bowl the season before.

Roethlisberger, nicknamed "Big Ben," stands 6 feet 5 and has uncommon speed for his size. Unlike, say, Drew Bledsoe, Roethlisberger seems to feel completely comfortable rolling out and throwing on the run.

Asked this week about what he plans to do with the starting job when Maddox comes back, Cowher chuckled and said somewhat mysteriously, "I'll just laugh at that question for now."

So far, it's been Miami of Ohio's Roethlisberger who has gotten the last laugh on those who thought he was too unpolished as a junior out of the Mid-American Conference to make an immediate impact. The two quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, Eli Manning of the New York Giants and the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers, are standing on the sidelines holding clipboards.

Roethlisberger is the third young quarterback from his conference to make a splash in the NFL in the last four years. The New York Jets used the 18th pick on Chad Pennington in 2000; and in 2003, the Jacksonville Jaguars used the seventh pick on Byron Leftwich (H.D. Woodson), Pennington's backup at Marshall.

Leigh Steinberg, Roethlisberger's agent, thinks all three of those quarterbacks should have gone earlier in the first round, but a lot of teams downgraded them because they came from smaller schools.

"There's a certain defect in the scouting system," Steinberg said. "In Ben's case, it was devaluation a third time over in relation to the MAC. As he went through scouting, the judgment was made that he was playing in a league that was somehow inferior."

So how did Roethlisberger react to that big MAC attack?

"He'd bristle," said Steinberg, who brought him to Newport Beach, Calif., to train from January to March. "But, if anything, it provided for him a challenge and incentive to achieve at a higher level. Ben loves the underdog mentality."

If so, Roethlisberger really must be enamored of the Steelers' upcoming schedule. After Dallas and a week off, they play the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, who are a combined, 8-0. If Roethlisberger thrives in those games, those Marino comparisons will really mean something.

In some ways, though, Roethlisberger already has created a legacy. Several restaurants around Pittsburgh have named sandwiches after him. Brentwood Express on Route 51 is selling the "Ben Roethlis-burger," which comes with bacon, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing and cheddar and provolone cheeses. Then there's Peppi's on the North Side, which sells the "Roethlisburger," a combination of beef, sausage, scrambled eggs and American cheese. It costs $7, matching his jersey number.

McNair's Drop-off

Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair picked up his 71st career victory Monday night, breaking the franchise record he shared with Warren Moon. But things haven't gone too smoothly for McNair this season.

According to STATS Inc., McNair's 13.9 passer-rating drop-off from 96.7 last season to 82.8 this season is the second largest in the NFL. The Miami Dolphins' Jay Fiedler has the largest drop-off, 19.8 points. . . .

A few weeks ago, Coach Marty Schottenheimer and quarterback Drew Brees didn't look as if they'd be lasting too long in San Diego. Things have changed. The Chargers have won their last two, are in second place in the AFC West, and are scoring 28 points a game, their highest average since 1985. . . .

The Patriots' NFL-record winning streak is at 19 and counting, but it could be in jeopardy. New England's next four opponents -- the Seattle Seahawks, the New York Jets, Pittsburgh and the St. Louis Rams -- have a combined record of 14-4. . . .

In advance of Sunday's Cincinnati Bengals-Cleveland Browns game, Bengal wide receiver Chad Johnson sent each of the four members of the Brown secondary a package that contained a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and a handwritten note reading: "Just to add a little color and relief to your week -- Chad." He autographed each message with his number, 85.

Really, it was a thoughtful gift. Especially for a poor soul who just downed a Roethlis-burger.

Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has won all three of his starts and is third in the NFL in yards per completion. He has been compared to Dan Marino during his first year.