Mystery surrounds Steelers' QB plan for season's start
Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich is most likely to start Sept. 12, but Ben Roethlisberger is most ready to take the field -- even though his NFL suspension won't make that possible.
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Mike Tomlin and his staff have done a good job getting one quarterback ready to open the 2010 season for the Steelers.
Unfortunately for them, Ben Roethlisberger cannot play until at least Oct. 17, and then only if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reduces his six-game suspension to four, as many expect to happen later this week.
Roethlisberger looks to be in good form after playing 31 snaps with the first-team offense over the past two preseason games and getting a significant number of snaps with the first team throughout training camp.
Yet the Steelers must start someone else at quarterback for at least the first four games of the season, and the way they've gone about preparing that player has been mystifying.
All signs have pointed to Byron Leftwich as the starting quarterback. He took most of the snaps with the first team in spring practices until Roethlisberger returned in June. When Roethlisberger was not running the first team in training camp, Leftwich nearly always had that job. Those actions merely strengthened Tomlin's words in the spring that he would know his starting quarterback for the first four games by the start of camp.
Leftwich started the preseason opener -- Roethlisberger did not play -- then played with the first team in the second game after Roethlisberger took the first 20 snaps against the New York Giants. But Sunday night in Denver, the plan seemed to go haywire. Roethlisberger made his second start in a row and again looked good over the course of one quarter, 1 1/2 series and 11 snaps.
Dennis Dixon replaced him and, after a perfect passer rating through the first two games in which he led four touchdown drives and threw two touchdown passes, Dixon had problems. He threw two interceptions and was dumped for a 6-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 rollout from the Denver 17. On came Leftwich with the second team with 6:36 to go in the third quarter, and he came under such a heavy rush during his two series that Tomlin called a truce and got him out of there.
"He was in there under difficult circumstances with some mixing and matching of people," Tomlin said. "He didn't get much of a look tonight."
Charlie Batch, the forgotten man in this QB derby, finished up and played well.
So, now what? The Steelers enter their fourth preseason game Thursday night against Carolina, and this traditionally is the game in which first teams play a series or two or not at all. But Roethlisberger wants to play again.
"I hope so," he said after the game Sunday. "I'd like to get some no-huddle work in with some of the guys. I think that's the perfect opportunity when you're home. You can use the cadence. It would have been hard to do it tonight. I would like to get a couple of series to do that."
If he does, there is no way the Steelers will let him do it with anyone but the first team. After that, what? Would they keep the first team in the game into the second quarter in order to get Leftwich some work? After they just played that first team into the third quarter just four days earlier in Denver? If they do not extend the play of the first-team offense Thursday, it would mean their presumed starting quarterback for the first four games will not have had any work with the rest of the first team since the second preseason game. And this by a quarterback who did not play in a game since last September.
Tomlin had a unique dilemma presented to him when Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for at least the first four games of the regular season. He had no road map to follow and however he used his quarterbacks would be open to debate. He has done a good job of getting one of them ready.
Roethlisberger wants to find a way to keep not only in shape over the next month but in football shape. He wants to throw to receivers, among other things.
But under the NFL Personal Conduct Policy, a suspended player "cannot be at the club facility during the period of the suspension," an NFL spokesman reiterated Monday. Roethlisberger must do all those things elsewhere.
"I'm not sure what the rules are, but I will be in contact with my teammates, giving them my two cents along the way," Roethlisberger said. "I'm going to keep working out and bring my quarterback coach in from California and try as often as I can to just keep the cleats on and [be] throwing the ball."
Tomlin had a difficult time congratulating any players for their performance Sunday night. It would have seemed easy for him to do so with at least one of them, rookie running back Jonathan Dwyer, desperately trying to make the roster as the fifth back.
Dwyer led the Steelers with 89 yards rushing on 13 carries that included one 40-yard run, a touchdown run and other runs of 17 and 18 yards. Tomlin would have none of it, though.
"We'll take a look at the tape. We had some down-the-liners in, and they had some down-the-liners in," Tomlin said when asked if Dwyer were a bright spot. "As you guys can see, sometimes great performances against down-the-line people can be misleading."
First Published August 31, 2010 12:00 am