Starting season with Batch is only answer

Leftwich injured, inexperienced Dixon leaves only one quarterback

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You are about to read a sentence that I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be writing this morning.

The starting quarterback for your Steelers in their opening game against the Atlanta Falcons a week from Sunday will be Charlie Batch.

Not Dennis Dixon.

Really.

No, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't confide any state secrets in me Thursday night after the 19-3 exhibition win against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field. He was typically evasive about the team's messy quarterback situation, confirming only that presumptive replacement starter Byron Leftwich had a sprained left knee. That means Leftwich, who was injured in the second quarter, almost certainly won't play against the Falcons, maybe not in any of the four games that real starter Ben Roethlisberger is expected to miss because of his NFL-mandated suspension.

Going with Batch instead of Dixon merely makes the most sense.

With their defense, the Steelers don't figure to need their quarterback to win the games in Roethlisberger's absence. He just can't lose them. Dixon is much more likely than Batch to make the crucial mistakes. In his most expansive playing time in the preseason with and against first-team players -- in Denver Sunday night -- he threw two interceptions, one in the Broncos' end zone, the other that was returned 77 yards for a touchdown.

Batch's experience gives him a huge edge.

That doesn't mean the Steelers can't use Dixon in special packages, just as they were planning to do with Leftwich if Leftwich hadn't gotten hurt.

It just means Batch has to be the guy who starts and gets most of the plays.

"Whichever way it goes, I'll be ready," Batch said.

What a day it was for Batch. He showed up at Heinz Field thinking he might be putting on his Steelers uniform for the final time. He seemed certain to be released in the final cuts Saturday.

"Now, you're talking that I might be the starter. Amazing," Batch said.

It's not the best of situations by any stretch.

"I didn't get the reps in training camp," Batch said, the odd man out as Tomlin worked to get Roethlisberger ready for his post-suspension and Leftwich and Dixon ready for those first four games.

But ...

"I've got to make it work if they call on me," Batch said.

The reason Batch was No. 4 in the four-man quarterback derby was because of his reputation for being injury prone. Tomlin couldn't afford to give him a lot of practice time and then have him break down the first time he was hit.

"That's fair because my injuries happened," Batch said. But he thought he showed Tomlin something the way he stood up to a beating in mop-up duty against the Broncos. "I took three solid shots and got up and continued to play ... I have no doubt I can play four games or how many ever it is without getting hurt again."

It would be funny that Leftwich is the quarterback who got hurt if it weren't so sad. It happened right after he zipped a pass to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders for an 18-yard gain when he appeared to get tangled with running back Mewelde Moore, who was blocking for him.

"I've been good friends with Byron for a long time," Batch said. "I feel for him because he's worked so hard to get to this point."

Dixon took over the offense after Leftwich's injury and quickly threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Sanders with 9:09 left in the second quarter. It turned out to be his only pass because Tomlin shut him down for the night. Batch played the final 2 1/2 quarters.

Initially, I thought that was to save Dixon for the Falcons and not risk him being hurt. But the more I look at it, I'm convinced it was to get Batch some much-needed work even if he threw only four passes.

"Either way, I'll take it," Batch said.

So the Steelers' strange and unprecedented quarterback situation -- set up by Roethlisberger's deplorable decisions in a Milledgeville, Ga., college bar March 4 when he was accused but not charged with rape -- took another crazy turn.

Who knows what's going to happen today?

Roethlisberger and Steelers president Art Rooney II are expected to meet today with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in New York to ask that Roethlisberger's conditional suspension be reduced from six games based on good behavior. Goodell has indicated if he reduces it, it will be to four games.

The Steelers can hope, right?

Not everybody is, though.

"Going to bars -- treating women like that; oh my God, I pray they don't cut it to four games," former Steelers great Terry Bradshaw told the Shreveport Times. "I hope they leave it at six. There is no excuse for that. The egos got out of hand."

It's never good when one Steelers quarterback legend criticizes another. But in this bizarre summer, it only seems appropriate.



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