Tomlin must stick with Big Ben

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Almost no one connected with the Steelers wants to talk about what's ailing Ben Roethlisberger and how that ailment is affecting his performance.

Asked about Roethlisberger's health, coach Mike Tomlin said, "I'm not going to make that the story line, and neither will he. He was well enough to play today."

Asked how he felt, Roethlisberger said, "You guys are never going to hear me make excuses. I don't care what it is ... shoulder, thumb: no excuses."

"You'll have to ask Ben," said Hines Ward. "I can't speak to a guy's injuries."

Only defensive lineman Brett Keisel would so much as acknowledge Roethlisberger is hurting. "I give him credit for going out and competing," he said.

But, even if no one is willing to address Roethlisberger's health, it's obvious that what was diagnosed as a low-grade shoulder separation is hampering his play. How do we know that? Here's how:

In the past three games, two of which were losses, Roethlisberger has thrown one touchdown and eight interceptions. And that's after throwing nine touchdowns and three interceptions in the first six games.

Three of those interceptions came yesterday at Heinz Field where the Steelers lost to the Indianapolis Colts, 24-20, a defeat that left them with a 6-3 record and in a first-place tie with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North Division.

Two of the interceptions were of the monumental, game-altering nature.

The first came with 90 seconds remaining in the first half from the Steelers' 16. The second came with 4:51 remaining in the game, with the Steelers ahead by three and on their own 34. It took the Colts six plays to score a touchdown after the first, four after the second.

The interceptions were the difference in the game, and Roethlisberger stood tall to accept the blame.

"If it were an individual sport and I lost the game, I wouldn't feel so bad," he said. "It's letting your teammates down. It hurts. You never hear me say 'I' anything, but I lost this game."

But, if Roethlisberger lost the game for the Steelers, he also kept them in it. On an day when the running game produced 55 yards on 26 carries, Roethlisberger and his receivers -- Ward caught nine passes for 116 yards -- were the Steelers' offense.

If you take away the interceptions (the third was harmless coming on a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game), Roethlisberger had a splendid day. He completed 30 of 42 passes for 284 yards and was sacked only twice. Beyond the interceptions, he outperformed the great Peyton Manning, who completed 21 of 40 passes for 240 yards.

As for the interceptions, they were ugly.

Roethlisberger was throwing for Santonio Holmes on the first. "I didn't see 'Ton," he said. "I shouldn't have thrown it."

The ball was grabbed easily by cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and returned to the Steelers' 30.

On the second interception, Roethlisberger again was going to Holmes, but misread the route. "I thought he was coming under," he said. "My mistake." Tim Jennings snatched the errant pass and returned it to the Steelers' 38.

Roethlisberger has been missing most of the Steelers' practices recently, but insisted that is not a factor in his play

"I don't think it's that big of an issue. I'm taking the mental reps and I'm seeing everything that's going on [in practice]. It's not as tough as it might seem. It's just coming out and executing, but I'm not doing that real well."

Of course, teams practice for a good reason, and, if Roethlisberger can't practice, it's bound to affect his play and could have been the reason for the interceptions.

There is sure to be a demand from many in the Steeler Nation and some in the media to replace Roethlisberger with veteran backup Byron Leftwich, who performed so well in relief against Washington last week, in what was the Steelers' only win in the past three games.

But how does a coach turn his back on a franchise quarterback? How do you sit down the man in whom the club has about a $100 million investment and who completed 71 percent of his passes in his most recent game?

And here's another reason why Tomlin should stick with Roethlisberger.

As well as Leftwich played against Washington -- 7 of 10 for 129 yards and a touchdown, there's no guarantee he'll do as well the next time. There's a reason he was a free agent and available to any team when Charley Batch was injured in training camp.

In three games with the Atlanta Falcons last season, Leftwich completed 32 of 58 passes for 279 yards. He threw one touchdown and three interceptions and had a passer rating of 51.4.

It would be helpful if Roethlisberger could get in a full week of practice for the San Diego Chargers who will visit Heinz Field Sunday. If he can, he absolutely should start. If he can't, and he's healthy enough to play, he absolutely should start.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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