LANDOVER, Md. -- One minute, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sneaking over left guard last night and celebrating a touchdown late in the second quarter that gave the Steelers an unlikely 10-6 lead against the Washington Redskins after one of the worst halves of offensive football that you'll ever see. It was a good sign, maybe of better things to come in the second half.
The next minute, Roethlisberger was trotting to the FedEx Field locker room ahead of his teammates, before the half was done. He jammed his right shoulder on the touchdown, not, as everyone thought, when he hit his right hand on defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery on the follow-through of a pass early in the second quarter. Now, he was headed for X-rays with team orthopedist Dr. Jim Bradley. That was definitely not a good sign.
A dozen minutes after that, the Steelers returned for the second half without Roethlisberger. That was the worst sign of all.
Forget about the game being in doubt.
Suddenly, the rest of the season was in doubt.
"I'll be OK," Big Ben said afterward. Asked if he thought his shoulder problem, which has been bothering him since the first game of the season, was serious, he shrugged and said, "I hope not."
But the Steelers do have a short week before they play the Indianapolis Colts at home Sunday ...
It's a good thing they have Byron Leftwich ready to go.
Just in case.
All Leftwich did last night was lead the Steelers to a 23-6 win, a victory that kept them one game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens at the halfway point of the tight AFC North Division race. He will tell you he wasn't the least bit surprised. This wasn't his first rodeo, you know? He had won 24 games as an NFL starter and helped to lead the Jacksonville Jaguars to the playoffs in 2005. He's supposed to be able to do the job when called on, right?
But do it this well?
"Everyone is going to try to make this about me," Leftwich said. "But this is about the Pittsburgh Steelers and the way we play football week in and week out."
Modest man, Leftwich.
The guy was terrific.
Leftwich's first pass went for 50 yards to wide receiver Nate Washington. Then, there was a 7-yard dart to running back Mewelde Moore on a third-and-7 play at the Redskins' 8. Just like that, the Steelers were headed to another touchdown, a 16-6 lead and command of the game early in the third quarter.
Leftwich was even better on a drive that started late in the third quarter. There was a 16-yard pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes on third-and-15, a 13-yard pass to Moore on third-and-4, a 25-yard check-down to Moore under duress and a 13-yard pass to wide receiver Hines Ward on third-and-8. It only seemed right that Leftwich completed the touchdown drive with a 5-yard pass to Holmes, whose dive for the end zone left the Steelers with their 23-6 lead.
"It was good to be back on the field again," Leftwich said.
Here's the amazing part:
"I truly don't know the offense yet," said Leftwich, who was signed in August after Charlie Batch's broken collarbone injury.
"That's the hard part. Not getting any reps. Not getting the opportunity to practice with our offense. I run the other team's offense. This week, I was [Redskins quarterback] Jason Campbell. Last week, I was [New York Giants quarterback] Eli Manning."
Last night, Leftwich did a pretty fair Roethlisberger imitation.
How good this night must have felt to the man.
For one thing, Leftwich grew up in Washington and there's nothing quite like beating the hometown team. Or not. "I grew up a die-hard Redskins fan," Leftwich said. "I don't like playing them. I don't like seeing them lose."
For another and much more important thing, Leftwich is playing for a starting job somewhere next season. This was one heck of an audition. "I let everyone pretty much know I'm healthy now," he said after having one ankle problem after another the past three seasons.
Roethlisberger had a rough time even before his injury. He completed just 5 of 17 passes for 50 yards. He also threw an interception on a pass that was deflected. His passer rating? A putrid 15.1.
Roethlisberger returned to the sideline early in the third quarter and did a wonderful job cheerleading for Leftwich. Who knows? He might be cheering for him again against the Colts, although Leftwich is sort of figuring Big Ben will play.
"We all know Ben is the guy," he said.
Make no mistake about that.
There is absolutely no quarterback controversy here.
The Steelers are going to need Roethlisberger to hold off the Ravens and win the division.
But, this morning, they're feeling awfully lucky to have Leftwich in reserve.
Just in case.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .