The unique situation confronting the Steelers at their quarterback position turned more somber Thursday night when Byron Leftwich departed the final preseason game for good in the second quarter with a sprained left knee.
Coach Mike Tomlin declined to speculate how long Leftwich might be out because he said he did not yet know the results of an MRI test on the quarterback. But others around the team did not think the news was good and that Leftwich would not be ready to play in the opener Sept. 12 against Atlanta or perhaps for several weeks.
"That's what we were getting," said Charlie Batch, who went from possibly not making the team to possibly its starting quarterback for the opener and beyond.
A sprained knee means a torn ligament of some degree and nearly always means a player missing two or three weeks.
Tomlin allowed Dennis Dixon only a brief appearance at quarterback after Leftwich's injury, pulling him in favor of Batch, who played the rest of the way in the Steelers' 19-3 victory.
"I didn't know exactly the extent of what Byron's injury was," Tomlin said. "I am just interested in keeping them all clean from that juncture on."
In order to help avoid injury, Batch threw only four passes in 2 1/2 quarters.
Leftwich was the presumed starter while Ben Roethlisberger serves his suspension to open the season. Roethlisberger will learn this morning when he travels to New York whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will reduce his suspension from six games to possibly four to start the season. The Steelers were preparing Leftwich to open the season as the starter and for Dixon to relieve him on occasion.
Now, it's possible that Batch will start and Dixon will still enter games with the special packages the coaches have said they have designed for him.
"I think this is a classic example of being ready because you never know," Batch said.
Until Leftwich's injury, it appeared the Steelers might release Batch and go with two quarterbacks until Roethlisberger returned. Instead, he might start, and that may be why they pulled Dixon so quickly, in order to get Batch some playing time. He threw only six passes in the first three preseason games.
"I think it is in good hands," Batch said of the quarterback position with him and Dixon. "We had three solid guys and now we have two. Either way, I'll be ready to go."
He said he had thought that the game Thursday night "possibly could be" his last with the Steelers. Now, they may turn to him to start the first four games.
"It's one of those things, you just never know what could happen," Batch said.
Leftwich hurt his left knee with 10:25 remaining in the first half after he completed an 18-yard pass to rookie Emmanuel Sanders. Halfback Mewelde Moore was blocking Carolina safety Marcus Hudson on the play, and the two seemed to push into Leftwich, causing the injury.
Leftwich limped into the huddle but then waved for the medical people. He had entered the game for the third series after Roethlisberger started and played the first two.
After Leftwich departed in the middle of the fourth series, Dixon completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to Sanders and himself avoided injury when "I got kicked; it felt weird, but it was nothing major."
Tomlin pulled Dixon from the game after his touchdown pass and inserted Batch at quarterback with 5:19 to go in the first half. Three of the five starters were still in the offensive line when Leftwich was injured in the fourth series for the Steelers' offense. They had replaced left tackle Flozell Adams with Jonathan Scott and left guard Chris Kemoeatu with Doug Legursky. Carolina coach John Fox did not play either of his first teams on offense or defense, a path he has followed in the final preseason game in past years.
Leftwich completed 2 of his 4 passes for 43 yards before his injury.
Roethlisberger started his third consecutive preseason game, played the first two series and once again led them to three points, the third time in three games he has done that. This time, though, Roethlisberger did it against Carolina's second-team defense. Roethlisberger completed 4 of 6 passes for 39 yards before he gave way to Leftwich with 53 seconds left in the first quarter.
Jeff Reed kicked a 33-yard field goal to give the Steelers a 3-0 lead to end Roethlisberger's second and final series -- and last appearance in a Steelers uniform until at least Oct. 17, when they play at home against Cleveland in the fifth game of the regular season.
Dixon's 23-yard touchdown pass to Sanders made it 10-0 with 9:09 left in the second quarter. Reed's 43-yard field goal as time expired in the first half boosted their lead to 13-0.
Reed added a third field goal of 31 yards with 4:50 left in the third quarter, completing a second field-goal drive behind Batch, for a 16-0 lead.
Leftwich was placed on injured reserve last season by Tampa Bay with an elbow injury and did not play after the first three games of the season. An ankle injury in 2006 limited him to six games for the Jacksonville Jaguars and plagued him into the 2007 season with the Atlanta Falcons.
Carolina avoided a shutout when 40-year-old original Panther John Kasay kicked a 51-yard field goal with 14:51 to go in the fourth quarter.
The victory left the Steelers with a 3-1 preseason record.
Rookie Jonathan Dwyer led the Steelers in rushing for the second consecutive game with one run of 36 yards and another of 21. He finished with a game-high 86 yards on 20 carries.
Reed's fourth field goal came with 1:06 left, a 32-yarder.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published September 3, 2010 4:15 AM