The Pittsburgh Steelers have an important stretch of games to round out their season, including five within their division and two against the Baltimore Ravens, the first of which happens this Sunday night, and they may have to do much of that heavy lifting without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger suffered a sternoclavicular (SC) joint injury in Monday night's Week 10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs that, in concert with a related—and more serious—rib dislocation, could have him sidelined indefinitely. Backup Byron Leftwich will be on the field in his stead this Sunday against the Ravens.
Though the Steelers have not formally announced the amount of time Roethlisberger is expected to miss, they are clearly planning for a span of time without the quarterback who has led them to three Super Bowl appearances and two wins. With the playoffs still in Pittsburgh's grasp, they need to put together a plan for Week 11 and beyond to keep them in the postseason picture.
Clearly, Leftwich is no Roethlisberger, though he's in many ways better than the majority of the backup quarterbacks around the league. But they'll still need to make offensive adjustments, and do so with a relatively short amount of time.
Over his career, Leftwich has started 49 games, winning 24 and losing 25. In his time with the Steelers, he's taken the field 11 times with three starts, with Pittsburgh winning seven of those games but losing all three contests in which he was the starter.
Rust issues aside, the biggest differences between Roethlisberger and Leftwich are mobility and delivery, with the latter being the issue that needs mitigated most quickly. Leftwich's long passing motion makes him easier to predict and pick off, as well as sack.
With the Steelers' passing game under coordinator Todd Haley reliant on short, quick throwing, there will need to be some adjustments to their approach—Leftwich simply cannot get the ball out as quickly as Roethlisberger.
That's a main reason why we saw Leftwich go deep when he came in for Roethlisberger against the Chiefs. It's as though his windup for short passes takes just as long as when he plans to throw for 20 or more yards, but just because that is the case doesn't mean the Steelers are prepared to abandon the offensive strategy that has worked so well thus far.
What's likely to come from the quarterback switch is more running. That's practically a given for any team who is forced to start their backup passer, but with Leftwich's elongated delivery, a pass-heavy approach becomes a liability. The Steelers cannot afford to start turning the ball over regularly or giving their quarterback up to defensive pressure.
Though Roethlisberger is notoriously hard to protect, because of his desire to hold onto the ball until the final second and propensity to extend plays (smart or not), Leftwich presents a similar challenge for the Pittsburgh offensive line, even if it's for different reasons. Can older quarterbacks be taught new tricks? Can Haley somehow coax a faster delivery out of Leftwich? That's likely not a possibility, but at the very least, existing plays can be tweaked to Leftwich's strengths.
Back to the running, though. Against the Chiefs, the Steelers' run-game productivity dipped some from the previous three weeks. No Steelers back had 100 rushing yards on the day, with Jonathan Dwyer putting up 56 yards on 19 carries and Isaac Redman 21 yards on eight rushes. Opposing defenses are starting to wise up to the fact the Steelers were able to get their run game back on track, and as such, they could see another multi-week dip in their rushing production.
It helps that the Steelers have the Ravens in Pittsburgh this Sunday night. Though Baltimore held the Oakland Raiders to just 72 rushing yards, the Raiders went into the game one of the sorriest run offenses in the league, and it didn't help matters that their top two running backs, Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson, were sidelined with high ankle sprains, leaving fullback Marcel Reece (who had just one carry to his name this season prior to Week 10) to get the start.
Despite that performance, Baltimore's run defense is one of the worst in the league, giving the Steelers a good chance to bounce back as far as their rushing yardage is concerned, especially with this game taking place in Pittsburgh.
In the passing game, Leftwich needs to rely heavily on Roethlisberger's old standby, tight end Heath Miller. Miller wasn't targeted once by Leftwich on Sunday night, but that will have to change starting this week if the Steelers are going to have a semblance of the passing success they had with Roethlisberger.
Miller may not have the most receiving yards for the Steelers right now, but he's been Roethlisberger's most reliable target, pulling down 43 of the 57 passes thrown his way for a total of 431 yards and six touchdowns, tied with wide receiver Mike Wallace for the most scores. With Leftwich under center, Miller should be an even more integral part of the offense.
While Leftwich went deep twice in seven total passes against the Chiefs (connecting with neither of them), that needs to be an anomaly and not the game plan for his time under center. There is always a point in which a deep shot is a good idea, a calculated risk that can pay off with points, but shorter throws to Miller result in more completions and first downs than do the longer bombs.
This matters doubly for a quarterback like Leftwich, who hasn't won a game as a starting quarterback since 2006 with the Jacksonville Jaguars—he needs to maintain drives, not be a hero.
Haley's ball-control offense, however, is a backup quarterback-friendly system that may just be perfect for Leftwich's attempts to win games. But the offense will not be the same without Roethlisberger, making it even more important for Pittsburgh's defense to step up and play well.
In terms of yards and points allowed, the Steelers have one of the strongest defenses in the league, and have been doing so without strong safety Troy Polamalu on the field for the vast majority of the season.
However, the Steelers gave up 100 rushing yards to Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles in Week 10, despite Charles running the same direction—right, and mainly between right guard and right tackle—for most of the night.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley and defensive end Ziggy Hood were punished repeatedly by Charles' running, and it's likely something the Ravens have taken notice of and will try to again exploit this Sunday, using Ray Rice in the same manner.
For the Steelers to keep winning while Roethlisberger is out, they cannot allow any more 100-yard rushers or 300-plus yard passers and they must remain in the top 10 when it comes to third-down conversions allowed.
Making up for Roethlisberger's absence isn't just the responsibility of the offense—it's a team effort that will require better performances out of every single player who takes the field. Everyone must comply—dropped passes, missed tackles, fumbled balls and blown assignments need to be curtailed immediately to make things easier on Leftwich and harder on their opponents.
The Steelers are not in an ideal situation presently, but luckily for them, they are a team that is more than just their quarterback. They hold a winning record, have an offensive system in place that can work to Leftwich's advantage and aren't unfamiliar with Roethlisberger having to miss games.
This week's game against the Ravens is now significantly more difficult, but a win isn't out of the question, as long as each player can adapt accordingly.
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