With Ben Roethlisberger ruled out for Sunday night’s game against the 7-2 Ravens — he also could miss their rematch at M&T Bank Stadium on Dec. 2— the 6-3 Steelers don’t expect Leftwich to wobble in his first start with the Steelers. They also don't believe training wheels will be necessary.
“This is not his first rodeo,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s got good, charismatic leadership and he can make all the throws on the field. We expect winning football from him.”
Hours earlier, Roethlisberger, his right arm in a sling, stood inside the locker room at the team’s practice facility. He revealed that he hadn’t just suffered a sprain to the sternoclavicular joint in his throwing shoulder while getting sacked in the third quarter of the 16-13 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs, but also a dislocated rib that was of even greater concern.
“That’s really the scary part because I guess if it goes in the wrong direction it can puncture the aorta,” said Roethlisberger, who is 9-4 all-time against the Ravens. “That’s more of the issue, I think.”
The 30-year-old quarterback, who has thrown for 2,287 yards and 17 touchdowns in nine games, said he heard a “crunch” and a “crack” when he hit the ground after the punishing sack. The rib injury has caused him more pain, and when asked to gauge the severity of the pain, he estimated that it was a nine on a scale of one to 10. He declined to give a deadline on a potential return.
Roethlisberger expressed disappointment that he would miss the rivalry game at Heinz Field, but he gave votes of confidence for Leftwich, 32, and Charlie Batch, the 37-year-old who will be Leftwich’s backup. “I have no fear because of the backups that we have,” Roethlisberger said.
But since the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger in 2004, they are 0-4 against the Ravens when he has missed a game due to injury or suspension. Leftwich did not play in any of the losses, and is confident the Steelers can collectively buck that trend as long as he doesn’t try to do too much.
“Let’s be honest, I’m not going to run around, make two or three guys miss, roll all the way to the left and find [wide receiver] Mike Wallace in the back of the end zone. I’m not capable of doing that,” he said. “What I can do is get the ball in the right guy’s hand and just be myself.”
Tomlin said that offensive coordinator Todd Haley may make subtle changes to his scheme with Leftwich under center, “just to lean on his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.” Leftwich has experience and a strong arm that won’t take any vertical passing plays out of the playbook. After Roethlisberger left Monday’s game, Leftwich came in and completed seven of 14 passes without an interception for 73 yards.
“[Leftwich] loves to throw the ball downfield. That’s what he does,” Wallace said. “That’s his strong point and that’s my strong point. So hopefully we can connect on a couple of them.”
But in Haley’s offense, which has some West Coast principles and shorter quarterback drops and quicker throws than in years past, there aren’t just questions about Leftwich's mobility, but also his accuracy and elongated throwing motion that was picked apart by scouts before he was drafted in 2003.
The Ravens coveted Leftwich then, but ended up drafting Arizona State linebacker Terrell Suggs with the 10th pick — three picks after the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Leftwich out of Marshall. Later in the first round, the Ravens traded up and drafted California quarterback Kyle Boller.
“I thought I would be a Raven, really, when I first came up, but it didn’t happen that way,” Leftwich said.
Nine years, four teams and 49 NFL starts later, Leftwich will take all the reps with the Steelers’ first-team offense for the first time as they prepare to play the Ravens with first place on the line.
Leftwich has played in seven games in two stints with the team spanning four seasons but no starts. His last start was for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009, when he was keeping the huddle warm for top pick Josh Freeman. Leftwich has lost six straight starts dating back to 2006, his Jacksonville days.
“It's going to be a battle no matter what. We’re excited to play,” Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. “You look at Byron Leftwich, he's a really good guy. He's shown he can win in this league. We can't take him for granted. This guy is very capable of going out there and shredding us.”
There will be opportunities for Leftwich to throw the football against a Ravens defense that ranks 26th in pass defense and 22nd with 16 sacks. But on Wednesday, he was simply looking forward to shaking free from a group of reporters and cameramen.
A black Washington Nationals baseball cap shielding his face from the glare of several television cameras, Leftwich joked that he hasn’t received this much attention since he was a top pick. Asked about that statement later, he said, “I’m 32 years old now. I wish I felt like I did when I was a rookie.”
But there are no first-year butterflies as Leftwich readies for the Ravens. Those are reserved for someone who has never been on a bike. It’s been a while, but this man has pedaled before.
“It’s exciting to get … an opportunity to get the ball to these guys, and just to play with this caliber of a team,” the Washington D.C. native said, listing Pittsburgh’s top pass-catchers. “This ain’t the Bad News Bears. That gives me comfort, the playmakers we have around me.”