Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported early on Tuesday that Roethlisberger is expected back this week, while Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin tempered that statement somewhat in his press conference later that morning, saying that if Roethlisberger threw well in practice on Wednesday and proved himself ready to play, he'd be the one under center.
Though the possibility is very real that Charlie Batch gets his third consecutive start, this is the most optimistic Tomlin and the Steelers have been about Roethlisberger's return since he injured his ribs and shoulder in Week 10 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the three weeks the Steelers have been without Roethlisberger, they have gone 1-2, with two of those games—one win, one loss—with Batch as their quarterback (Byron Leftwich, who got the first start, also came down with a rib and shoulder injury that has since left him sidelined).
Though the Steelers can win with Batch under center, as was proven in Week 13 against the Baltimore Ravens, clearly Roethlisberger gives them a better chance of stringing together victories—the Steelers had lost three games with Roethlisberger as their quarterback and had put together a four-game win streak prior to his injury.
Here's how Roethlisberger's potential return this week could affect the Steelers, especially considering their present tenuous grasp on a wild-card playoff berth.
The Best Man for the Job
Clearly, a team is always in a better position to win when its starting quarterback is on the field rather than one of his backups. With Roethlisberger as their quarterback, the Steelers have been to three Super Bowls, winning two, and have had no worse than an 8-8 record while he's been their starter.
But more than that, prior to his injury, Roethlisberger was on pace to have the best season of his career. He had completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 2,287 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions and had been sacked a surprisingly low 18 times.
With Todd Haley as his offensive coordinator, Roethlisberger was more efficient and effective even if he wasn't taking the risky, deep shots that had been his calling card in seasons prior.
Though Batch showed against the Ravens that he's capable of running Haley's offense and fitting into the game plan nearly seamlessly, this is Roethlisberger's team, and the plays are ultimately designed with him in mind. Roethlisberger's presence immediately increases the team's likelihood of winning games, as compared to Batch, who is capable of doing so but isn't as reliable and consistent—with him, it's whether the Steelers can win, instead of whether they will.
If Roethlisberger plays this week, he won't be 100 percent healthy. However, if he proves he can make throws and hold his own in Wednesday's practice, that will be all the Steelers need to decide to name him their starter. Roethlisberger's track record speaks for itself, and if he can play, he will—even if Batch will likely be the healthier quarterback.
The Steelers currently sit at 7-5, with two games remaining against AFC North opponents. They're two games behind the Baltimore Ravens for the division's top spot and have a chance to both solidify their postseason positioning as well as overtake the Ravens if they can win all of their four remaining games.
The quicker Roethlisberger returns, the greater the likelihood they can go undefeated in the final four weeks of the season. Though there's no guarantee they will, they clearly have a much better chance of doing so with Roethlisberger at quarterback rather than Batch.
Though Batch does pose some difficulties when it comes to opposing defenses preparing for him—he's appeared in only two games this season, which provides them little footage to scout—Roethlisberger is ultimately harder to defend. At one time, Batch was more of a mobile threat, but those days are long gone.
While the switch in offensive coordinators from Bruce Arians to Haley has resulted in Roethlisberger spending more time in the pocket, it hasn't prevented him from extending plays with his legs, as is his signature. Defenses don't know what to expect out of Roethlisberger, even if it seems like pass-rushers have him in their hands.
His unpredictability and elusiveness are major reasons why the Steelers have been so successful while he's been their quarterback, and that kind of advantage over opposing defenses is something that will help the Steelers in their bid to keep hold of a playoff berth.
With Batch under center, opponents can expect a more simplistic, pared-down version of Haley's offense, with less distribution of the ball and more conservative throws. Though Roethlisberger has been reined in somewhat this season thanks to Haley, his ability to spread the ball around to many different receivers, throw defenders off his scent with the play action and give would-be pass-rushers fits when trying to bring him down are qualities Batch simply does not possess.
It's harder to plan for Roethlisberger in the days leading up to facing the Steelers. Batch can be approached like a typical pocket-passing quarterback; the same cannot be said for Roethlisberger, and the fact that opposing teams go into games against Roethlisberger expecting the unexpected is a decided advantage for Pittsburgh.