Leftwich eager to hit the ground running as leader of the offense

Ben Roethlisberger has had the best first two weeks of training camp in his career, which makes the first four weeks of the Steelers' regular season that much more important.

If, at 28, Roethlisberger appears to be ready to improve on his best statistical season in 2009, then what the Steelers do during those first four games without him could mean the difference between getting another shot at a Super Bowl or writing the season off as one big calamity.

And that is why it remains so important to get the opening-game starting quarterback prepared while Roethlisberger sits out the first four games with a suspension, and why it would be strange if Roethlisberger would start the first preseason game Saturday instead of Byron Leftwich.

Coach Mike Tomlin left everyone guessing Thursday as to his plans at quarterback for the game against the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field and indicated that he could start Roethlisberger or not play him at all. Roethlisberger said after he and Leftwich split practice time with the first team Thursday that he would like to play Saturday.

Leftwich, though, is the quarterback the Steelers need to have ready for the season opener Sept. 12 against Atlanta, five weeks before Roethlisberger will be eligible to play in his first real game.

Leftwich, who has a minor thumb problem, insists his coaches have not told him what the quarterback rotation will be Saturday, but it has become more than obvious that he will begin the season as the starting quarterback.

And no one has walked around the Saint Vincent campus smiling as wide as Leftwich.

"I'm excited to be back and part of this team. It's good to be with a good football team, I'm telling you. As a quarterback, it's a whole lot better to play when you have these types of players around you."

He said the Steelers have more offensive talent than any team he has been with, which includes two playoff teams in Jacksonville in 2004 (12-4) and '05 (11-5), a mediocre Atlanta team in '07 (7-9) and a bad Tampa Bay outfit last season (3-13) when he started the first three games and then did not play again.

Both of Leftwich's turns with the Steelers came after trouble hit one of their quarterbacks. In 2008, it was a season-ending broken collarbone to Charlie Batch in the preseason opener. This year, it was Milledgeville, Ga.

Leftwich's take on the offensive line, with Willie Colon out for the season and Flozell Adams his late replacement, is upbeat.

"They look pretty good to me. Anytime you lose Willie, that's tough because you have a tough guy, a guy who has been around. But when you can add Flozell, that kind of put a Band-Aid on that wound because here's a guy who knows how to play football. He's played a lot of football, he's been on a lot of winning football team, he's been in all the situations you can think of."

He has been reminded often since rejoining the Steelers of the many quarterback sacks the team has endured the past four seasons -- 49, 47, 49 and 50 last season.

"Somebody asked me something about how many sacks we've given up over the years. I don't really look at it that way," Leftwich said. "I know these guys. I know how good these guys are. If I get the ball out on time, get the ball to the right guys ... the offensive linemen are the least of my worries."

And his receivers without Santonio Holmes?

"They look pretty good. It's tough to say anybody's going to replace Santonio because he did a lot for this team, not just catching passes, but the fear he put into defenses. I don't know how teams are going to play us in the beginning because he's not here. Not to say nobody else can do what [he] did, but none of us have seen it yet in game situations.."

That might explain the eagerness by Leftwich to play in a game for the first time since Sept. 27, the third game of the 2009 season that ended when the Buccaneers put him on injured reserve with an elbow injury. He's familiar with just one receiver from the '08 Steelers team, Hines Ward. All the others are new to him.

"People are asking me if I'm going to replace Ben," Leftwich said. "I'm not going to try to replace Ben. I'm going to go out here and try to play the game the way I know how to play. I've won games in this league and I feel I can continue to do that with this team."

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com . First Published August 13, 2010 4:00 AM


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