Maddox ready to return but will be backup

Sometimes the best way to deal with a brush fire is to extinguish it before it even starts.

That's exactly the approach that Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, eyeing the return of Tommy Maddox to practice this week, has taken with his team's quarterback situation. Adopting a preemptive stance, even before reporters and fans could transform Maddox's return into a distraction, Cowher announced that rookie Ben Roethlisberger will remain the Pittsburgh starter.

While regarded as a no-brainer decision, the announcement by Cowher was intended to keep people from questioning the status of the depth chart, and to formally anoint the Steelers' first-round draft choice as more than just the replacement starter. Even after Sunday's victory that snapped the New England Patriots' 21-game winning streak, there were letters in the Pittsburgh-area newspapers Monday morning suggesting that Maddox might regain the No. 1 spot.

Not surprisingly, given Roethlisberger's extraordinary performance in winning his first five NFL starts, that won't be the case. Cowher met with both quarterbacks and apprised them of his decision.

"I think they both understand and we are ready to move on," Cowher said.

Maddox, who suffered a torn ligament in his right elbow in the second game of the year, at Baltimore, has been increasing his workload in recent weeks and likely will practice full-scale this week. Depending on his progress, he could serve as the No. 2 quarterback Sunday when the Steelers host the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.

The Steelers will attempt to become the first franchise in NFL history to win consecutive outings against undefeated clubs with at least six victories.

Journeyman Maddox became the Pittsburgh starter in 2002. He received an upgraded contract this spring and, when the Steelers chose Roethlisberger in the first round, the plan was for the younger player to serve an apprenticeship in 2004 before probably replacing Maddox next season. That all changed, of course, with the Maddox injury.

Roethlisberger has demonstrated great aplomb in winning five straight games but will face another daunting challenge Sunday against an Eagles defense that typically has a very high blitz ratio. But even Maddox acknowledged that the rookie has the kind of rare poise to handle almost every challenge.

"He's played well," Maddox said. "He's making plays. And he's turning broken plays into great plays."

With a quarterback rating of 104.7, Roethlisberger ranks fourth in the league. Even more remarkable is that he leads the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating (126.5) and is third in the league in third-down efficiency (112.1). Over the last four games, Roethlisberger has completed 75.8 percent of his pass attempts.

Notable is that the Steelers have maintained a balanced attack, using the running game to help insulate Roethlisberger, who has yet to throw more than 25 passes in a game.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.