Of all the things that have gone wrong for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, having Byron Leftwich as their starting quarterback as a result of the shoulder injury suffered by Ben Roethlisberger on Monday night tops everything else.
This is bad news for the Steelers, who are not only trying to catch the Ravens in the division but keep pace with teams around them—most notably Indianapolis—in the playoff race.
Because the AFC is so mediocre once you get past the division leaders, the Steelers aren't in immediate danger of missing the playoffs. If Roethlisberger has to miss an extended period of time, all that could change.
Leftwich did well enough in relief duty against the Chiefs, completing seven of 14 passes for 73 yards. But that was against the worst team in the NFL. Now he has to go up against one of the best, though the Ravens defense has been vulnerable at times this season.
The Steelers have built their offense—both the talent and scheme—around Roethlisberger's strengths as a quarterback. He is capable of doing a lot of things that most quarterbacks, and certainly none as big as him, aren't.
Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com wrote about Leftwich's strengths and weaknesses as a quarterback and deemed him a less-than-ideal fit for the West Coast offense that offensive coordinator Todd Haley uses.
If you know anything about Todd Haley's offense after eight games, it's a system that relies on short and quick passes. If you know anything about Leftwich after watching him throw a couple of passes, it's the fact that he doesn't get rid of the ball quickly.
Leftwich is a quarterback who has to throw the ball down the field to be effective. He winds up before releasing, which allows him to get his full arm into every throw, but it causes him to hold the ball forever.
That is a huge problem for a Steelers offensive line that has gotten better but is still wobbly in spots. They have battled injuries, with players like David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey missing time.
But the one thing the Steelers could always count on is Roethlisberger under center, making plays with his arm and legs. Now, the line has to be even more effective in pass-blocking, because Leftwich is a statue in the pocket.
Plus, even though he isn't getting talked about like Peyton Manning or Matt Ryan, Roethlisberger belongs in the MVP conversation. He is seventh in the NFL in completion percentage (66.1), he's eighth in touchdown passes (17) and he has a better TD-INT ratio than Manning and Ryan.
That is to say nothing of the way Roethlisberger keeps plays alive by scrambling in and out of the pocket to avoid sacks and negative plays.
The Steelers are likely to use the running game, which has averaged 140 yards in the last four games, a lot more than they would with Roethlisberger in the fold, but this is still a passing league.
You need a quarterback who is capable of making plays in order to win games. Leftwich is a bad fit in this offense, but the Steelers don't have any other options right now.
Relying on Leftwich for one game is manageable, though hardly ideal. If it gets to a point where Roethlisberger is missing three or four games, that is where the Steelers are in trouble. They have to play the Ravens twice in the next three weeks.
This looks like the beginning of the end of the Steelers in the AFC North. Whether they can hang on to win a wild-card berth is a different story. Given Leftwich's style, lack of playing time and inability to make plays on his own, I wouldn't count on a lot from the Steelers until Roethlisberger returns.
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