This is a serious setback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger is the heart and soul of this football team, the escape artist who makes Houdini-like moves to extend plays and deliver the football down the field. He's tough, smart and talented. With unconfirmed reports out now that the quarterback has a separated throwing shoulder and is likely out for Sunday's game against the Ravens and possibly longer, this changes the equation dramatically for the Steelers heading into this AFC North showdown.
Although backup Byron Leftwich is definitely competent, he's not Roethlisberger. He's a stationary, strong-armed pocket passer who has no mobility. The Ravens' pass rush isn't much to fear, but Leftwich is relatively easy to track down. He completed 7 of 14 passes for 73 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs in relief of Roethlisberger in a narrow escape of a win Monday night. However, he hasn't started a game since Sept. 27, 2009.
The Steelers will react by loading up their running game, and the Ravens haven't stopped many running games other than the Oakland Raiders a week ago when they were down to their third-string tailback in Taiwan Jones. Defensively, the Steelers remain formidable and could give Baltimore problems with their pass rush and stoutness against the run.
As tough and resilient as Roethlisberger is, the Steelers aren't going to risk his future -- immediate and long-term -- by having him play with a damaged shoulder against the Ravens even though this is a huge game with division title implications. The Ravens, who have lost Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis to injuries already this season, just caught a huge break if Roethlisberger is sidelined. Regardless of his status, though, expect a tight, well-played football game Sunday night that lives up to the usual standards of the rivalry.
The Steelers will probably string this out until Sunday night, but I think it's simple: If Ben Roethlisberger plays Sunday night at Heinz Field, the Steelers will win. If he doesn't, the Ravens will. More than ever, Pittsburgh's most valuable player is Roethlisberger, who is having arguably the best season of his career.
Early speculation has Ben Roethlisberger missing two to four weeks with an injury ranging from a sprained right shoulder to a separated right shoulder. Either way, I think the Ravens will spend this week of preparation as if the Steelers' quarterback will play, and that's the rational thing to do. I anticipate the defense will spend some time studying Byron Leftwich, but every member of the defense will speak this week as if Roethlisberger will play Sunday night. And the Steelers need Roethlisberger to play because Leftwich doesn't exactly strike fear in opposing defenses.