Collier: Leftwich can't deliver in a pinch

Leftwich, offense founder

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A queasy Steelers crowd battling severe Big Ben withdrawal let its initial appraisal show even before halftime -- there were boos, and, of course, booze -- but no one was terribly giddy with the established course of events.

Perhaps everyone could have relaxed a bit had they known that Leftwich was going to play quarterback to the tune of more than 400 yards of offense this weekend. Too bad it was Mack Leftwich of North Allegheny High, torturing Seneca Valley about 48 hours before the Steelers took the field against the Baltimore Ravens.

Byron Leftwich wasn't quite so prolific, nowhere near terrific, and instead steered an offense that was closer to soporific.

"We just couldn't get a rhythm," said Leftwich, whose 6-5, 250-pound frame took a rhythmic pounding from a rampaging Ravens defense in a pivotal 13-10 loss Sunday night. "We were in a lot of third-and-mediums, third-and-longs, and we'd make one good play but couldn't put four, five, six plays together. It's too hard to play against a good team when you're doing that."

Heath Miller tried to defibrillate the Steelers late in the fourth quarter with an exquisite, full-stretch sideline catch that converted a third-and-6, but a minute later, Leftwich couldn't get a simple second-and-11 throw to a wide open Mike Wallace, whipping it into the grass at his feet for a critical incompletion, then got slammed to the lawn himself by blitzing safety James Ihedigbo on the next play.

"I'm sure he was hurt, but he didn't show us," said tackle Max Starks. "He played like a tiger."

But the Tiger finished 18 for 39 with no touchdowns, an interception and a passer rating of 51.3. Roethlisberger's worst single-game passer rating of the season was 72.7.

Starting his first NFL game in more than three years due to Roethlisberger's damaged shoulder and dangerous dangling rib, Leftwich's first career start in a Steelers uniform (or some unreasonable facsimile of a Steelers uniform) started with some unexpected pyrotechnics.

Leftwich dropped back to throw on the first play from scrimmage, an excellent call by Todd Haley against a Ravens defense that figured to stack itself against the run, and let fly deep for Wallace.

Wallace couldn't quite locate it, but Cary Williams' pass interference act instantly moved the Steelers 42 yards to the Ravens 38.

"We wanted to come out and be very aggressive," said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who led Steelers receivers with 82 yards on three catches. "So we went deep to Mike and it ended up being a big play."

Two plays later, Leftwich fled the pocket at the approach of Baltimore menace Terrell Suggs and galloped toward the right sideline.

"A surprise to all of us," said Sanders.

No one expected much at that moment because, as the audience had been made painfully aware all week, Leftwich has a rocket arm but the approximate maneuverability of one of NASA's mobile launch platforms.

How Leftwich managed to turn the corner must have had something to do with a Ravens design flaw, but the way he faked safety Bernard Pollard completely out of his running lane was a small miracle that resulted in a 31-yard touchdown run, the longest of Leftwich's career by a comfortable 13 yards.

That it was also longer than any pass he completed until early in the third quarter was part of the growing problem for a Steelers offense that went 0-for-its-first-6 on third down. That it is usually the best third down offense in the NFL was just one facet of the difference so many people anticipated with the absence of No. 7.

"We were just flat on offense," said Wallace. "We scored one touchdown, on the first drive. We didn't help our defense out at all. For some reason, we didn't have a lot of plays downfield."

That Leftwich figured to be conspicuous as a pinch hitter for one of the game's elite passers in a prime-time assignment was obvious enough, but the whole drama was magnified not only because of the long, overheated Steelers-Ravens relationship, but because the teams were so similar from a production standpoint coming into their first meeting of the 2012 season.

Both offenses were averaging precisely 354.1 yards per game. The Ravens were generating 104.9 rushing yards, the Steelers 103.8. The Steelers were getting 250.3 pass yards per game, the Ravens 249.2.

But the first thing that looked anything like the Steelers offense didn't really materialize until late in the third period, when Leftwich drove it 80 yards in 12 plays to a Shaun Suisham field goal, which still left the Steelers trailing by three when the fourth quarter began.

Leftwich was a substandard 8 for 19 at that point, his eight completions gaining just 122 yards. He had thrown one interception.

Casting those modest stats in an even less flattering light was the diminished nature of the Baltimore defense, as it included no Ray Lewis, no Ladarius Webb and a hurting Haloti Ngata, not to mention the unavailability of starting defensive end Pernell McPhee and starting cornerback Jimmy Smith.

Defensive end Paul Kruger, on the other hand, appeared intent on compensating for the totality of those absences by terrorizing both Steelers rookie tackle Michael Adams, who could not handle him one-on-one, and Leftwich, whom he nearly decapitated at regular intervals.

"All we can do is rebound," said Sanders. "Redemption Sunday is in six days."

The Cleveland Browns willing.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich, middle, celebrates after scoring a rushing touchdown in the first quarter.

mobilehome - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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