Byron Leftwich starts strong for Steelers, fades late

Pittsburgh SteelersSportsFootballBaltimore RavensBen RoethlisbergerByron LeftwichDavid Gilreath

With injured Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger watching from the sideline in sweats Sunday, backup Byron Leftwich started against the Ravens, his first start since 2009.

Leftwich hit the ground running — literally — on his first drive, running for a 31-yard touchdown to give the Steelers an early 7-0 lead. But he struggled through the air, completing 18 of 39 attempts for 201 yards and one interception as the Ravens beat the Steelers, 13-10, at Heinz Field.

Leftwich got a chance to lead the Steelers on a late scoring drive in the game's final possession, but he missed an open David Gilreath on third down and completed a short pass to Gilreath short of the first-down marker on fourth down.

On his stunning touchdown scramble, Leftwich rolled out of the pocket to his right to evade Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who continued to chase Leftwich down the sideline after the quarterback decided to tuck and run. Leftwich barreled through an arm tackle by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, somehow staying in bounds before lumbering into the end zone.

The 31-yard run, which took 12 seconds off the clock, had the Heinz Field crowd in a frenzy.

But Leftwich did not have much success throwing the ball in the first half, as he completed just five of his 17 attempts for 85 yards. With Leftwich bouncing passes off the grass, the Steelers converted just one of seven third-down plays in the half. He didn't fare much better in the second half, completing 11 of his 22 throws for 116 yards, but couldn't get the Steelers into the end zone.

With the Ravens leading, 10-7, early in the third quarter, Leftwich moved the Steelers across midfield with a 37-yard pass to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Three plays later, Ravens cornerback Corey Graham, who was beat on the long gain by Sanders, picked off Leftwich's pass and returned it to the Baltimore 38-yard line. The Ravens turned the interception into three points.

On Pittsburgh's next drive, Leftwich steered the Steelers 80 yards on 12 plays to set up a field goal. But on their next two possessions, they advanced into Ravens territory but could not sustain drives once they got there. Overall, the Steelers were 5-for-16 on third down.

The strong-armed quarterback struggled with his accuracy on intermediate throws in particular, though he stood tall in the pocket and showed his toughness by staying in the game after several hard hits, including a sack by Ravens safety James Ihedigbo on a late third-down play.

His favorite target was Sanders, who replaced the injured Antonio Brown in the starting lineup. Their chemistry from working on the second team together in practice for most of the season carried over to Sunday's game, and Sanders led the Steelers with three catches for 82 yards.

Sunday's game was Leftwich's first start as a member of the Steelers. The 32-year-old has lost seven straight starts dating back to 2006, his last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Ravens are now 5-0 against the Steelers when Roethlisberger has been sidelined due to an injury or suspension. But it's still unclear if they will get a chance to make it 6-0 two weeks from now when they host the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium. The Steelers haven't revealed when Roethlisberger, who has a sprained shoulder and dislocated rib, will return to the playing field.

mvensel@baltsun.com

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