Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich did his best Ben Roethlisberger impersonation on Sunday night, running 31 yards for a touchdown in the opening seconds of the game and making two Baltimore Ravens defenders miss, but that run also led to an apparent rib injury that marred the Steelers' offensive day and led to their 13-10 loss.
It wasn't just Leftwich's injury that led to the divisional loss—his one interception and a fumble by wide receiver Mike Wallace both led to field goals—six points in a defensive battle that made all the difference once time expired. And then there was Jacoby Jones' 63-yard punt return for a touchdown, without which the Ravens wouldn't have won, despite their points via turnovers.
It's cold comfort, however, for a Steelers team that now has shaky hopes for a playoff run without their highly accurate starting quarterback on the field.
Though Pittsburgh's defense performed up to its billing, holding Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to just 164 passing yards and 20 completions on 32 attempts and no touchdowns and the team as a whole to 47 total rushing yards and 23 attempts, its offense couldn't match them. And the main reason seems simply to be the change at quarterback.
Before Roethlisberger sprained his shoulder and dislocated his rib in Week 10, he had a 66.1 completion percentage and 17 touchdowns to four interceptions. In comparison, through the two games in which he's appeared, Leftwich is 25-of-55 for 274 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. They're clearly two different quarterbacks, no matter their similar willingness to play through apparent injury.
Tellingly, the Steelers' two turnovers occurred on pass plays, and yet they continue to rely most heavily on the pass game rather than the run, despite the latter's success. Leftwich went 18-of-39 for 201 yards and an interception, while the team as a whole netted 134 yards on 27 rushes—impressive numbers, even if you subtract Leftwich's 31-yard running score.
More runs could have netted better returns, like fewer touchdowns and more third-down conversions. Though the Steelers were tops in third-down conversions heading into this game, much of that had to do with Roethlisberger; with Leftwich, they converted only five of their 17 third downs (and went just 1-of-8 in the first half).
To his credit, Leftwich kept attempting—and making—difficult throws, even though it was clear he was in pain, and the Steelers were able to keep their run game in general working order though Isaac Redman left the game in the second quarter with a concussion.
But the differences between Roethlisberger and Leftwich—delivery, better ability to read defenses and general lack of rust among them—were highlighted on Sunday night, making it even clearer how uphill a battle it will be in the weeks Roethlisberger is expected to miss.
With this loss, the Steelers drop to 6-4 on the season, while the Ravens improve to 8-2 and extend their lead in the AFC North. The Cincinnati Bengals just put up their second win in a row, defeating the Kansas City Chiefs, and sit at 5-5.
With the Cleveland Browns up next and their second meeting against the Ravens the week after that, the Steelers are in very real danger of losing three divisional games in a row, which could easily knock them out of the AFC North race as well as a wild-card berth.
Much is on the line right now, and it's clear Leftwich, for all his benefits, is a significant downgrade from Roethlisberger. The defense, for the most part, stepped up (they didn't notch a turnover, however, which would have made a very real difference), and the coverage team clearly fell short when it came to the Jones punt return touchdown, but the Steelers were presented with the most opportunities to win when they were on offense, and it didn't go nearly as planned or hoped.
Leftwich—or Charlie Batch, depending on whether Leftwich is truly hurt—is not Roethlisberger, and he doesn't have to be. Pittsburgh can still win with him; it's just a matter of finding an offensive formula that works. Unfortunately, the Steelers don't have much time to experiment, with two divisional games in the next two weeks and this loss to the Ravens very fresh in their minds.
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