On The Steelers: Being best group of backup QBs poses huge problem

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If there is a better situation than the one the Steelers have at quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger would like to know it. And he is not speaking about himself.

People can debate all day about where Roethlisberger ranks among starting quarterbacks in the league, but there is little debate about those who back him up. The Steelers have the best, most experienced group of backup quarterbacks in the NFL.

"It kind of amazes me they don't get talked about more than they do because I think we have four capable starters," Roethlisberger said.

Two were young "franchise" quarterbacks with other teams in the league, and all three have started NFL games. Charlie Batch started 46 games in his first four seasons with the Detroit Lions. Byron Leftwich started 38 games in his first three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Each has passed for more than 10,000 yards. Dennis Dixon started two games during Roethlisberger's suspension last season, and the Steelers won them both.

"[With] a lot of teams you hear people say, 'Oh, my God, we would never survive if Peyton Manning went down' or Tom Brady or something like that," Roethlisberger said. "We can not only survive, we can thrive and win."

And did. The Steelers went 3-1 while Roethlisberger served his four-game suspension last season behind Dixon (2-0) and Batch (1-1) after Leftwich, signed to be No. 2, fell to a knee injury in the final preseason game.

The only problem facing the Steelers about their backup quarterback situation is deciding which one will go. Leftwich again has a lock on No. 2, so it comes down to Dixon or Batch. The Steelers have long had good, capable backup quarterbacks, but they never have had the kind of quality and experience from one through three -- never mind four -- at the position.

Leftwich has started games for three NFL teams (Jacksonville, Atlanta and Tampa Bay). Surprisingly, he has not started a game for the Steelers. He backed up Roethlisberger for the 2008 Super Bowl season after a knee injury put Batch on the shelf in training camp. He left as a free agent to join Tampa Bay as the Buccaneers starter, but that ultimately did not work out and he re-signed in 2010 to back up Roethlisberger.

"I feel better this year than I did last year because I know the system so well now I'm not thinking about it, I can just go out and play and react," Leftwich said.

As with Batch in Detroit, Leftwich started quickly in Jacksonville after the Jaguars made him the seventh overall draft pick in 2003 from Marshall. An injury and new staffs brought his tenure there to a close in 2006. After that, the road swerved through Atlanta to Pittsburgh to Tampa and back to Pittsburgh and, at 31, Leftwich could remain as Roethlisberger's backup for a long time if he wants.

"He can start on more than half the teams, in my opinion," Roethlisberger said. "I think he wants to stay here because he loves the organization. If he stays the backup, he's one of the best. I felt the same thing about Charlie forever. I think Charlie could start for a lot of teams."

Roethlisberger, who has started 98 games in his career, has the advantage of two wise old advisors with 101 NFL starts between them (Leftwich and Batch) when he comes to the sideline.

"I've been very blessed since the day I got here to have great quarterbacks in that [meeting] room," Roethlisberger said.

"When I come off the field, those are the first guys who grab me and talk to me. As a quarterback, you feel better having guys like that you can talk to because you trust what he sees rather than have a rookie who does not know much."

Quick hits

• Terrelle Pryor, eligible for the supplemental draft today, spent two hours visiting with Steelers officials and coach Mike Tomlin after practice Sunday.

• Aaron Smith said he hopes to resume practicing Tuesday after missing much of the past 1 1/2 weeks with a swollen knee. Smith played in the first preseason game but has not practiced since. Smith wants to play Saturday against Atlanta at Heinz Field.

• Cornerback Bryant McFadden also said he hopes to return to play against the Falcons. He has had a slight tear of his hamstring since the first week of training camp.

• With Keyaron Fox gone (Washington Redskins), the Steelers have an opening for one or two young linebackers to join their veteran, Pro Bowl-clogged group. Two favorites: rookie Chris Carter, their fifth-round pick, on the outside and Gateway High product Mortty Ivy on the inside. They started with nine last season and dropped to eight after they waived Thaddeus Gibson.

• Rookie offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert did not take long to return from his knee injury. He could start at left tackle Saturday if Jonathan Scott does not return to practice by Wednesday, although Tomlin said Scott would miss only a few days with his minor knee injury.

First Published August 22, 2011 4:00 AM


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