No Quarterback Is Safe When the Steelers Play
That goes for opposing passers as well as Ben Roethlisberger.
A dominating defensive effort in Monday night's 23-6 road victory over Washington was tempered by a right (throwing) shoulder injury that sidelined Roethlisberger for the second half. Whether he will have to sit for Sunday's home game against Indianapolis—or longer—wasn't clear immediately after the game.
We do know that Roethlisberger aggravated a pre-existing injury on a touchdown run late in the first half. The Steelers declined to comment on a report during the game telecast claiming Roethlisberger told the training staff his shoulder "popped out" on the play.
On the bright side for the Steelers, Washington's starting quarterback didn't have it much better. While he was never knocked from the game, Pittsburgh sacked Jason Campbell seven times and ended his string of consecutive passes without an interception at 271. The NFL's top-ranked defense also held Clinton Portis—the league's leading rusher—to 51 yards on 13 carries.
"(Portis) didn't hurt us for the most part," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior, who was seemingly everywhere during a 13-tackle performance. "The next job was to get after the quarterback. I think we did that, too."
Blitz after blitz had Campbell—arguably the NFL's most improved player in 2008 under the tutelage of first-year coach Jim Zorn—looking like the mediocre thrower he was last season. Most damning, Washington (6-3) didn't convert a third down until five minutes remained in the third quarter. The Redskins could easily have gotten shut out if not handed excellent field position for field goals by a botched onside kick and a Roethlisberger interception in the game's first four minutes.
As much as he was trying to catch Washington off-guard on the opening kickoff, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said his surprise tactic showed how much faith he has in his defense.
"We don't fear being aggressive," Tomlin said.
Nor should he. But Tomlin should fear his quarterbacks going down and ruining Super Bowl aspirations for a championship-caliber defense.
Roethlisberger's incapacitation was inevitable with the punishment he has absorbed playing behind an offensive line that was leaky before ravaged by its own injury problems. Roethlisberger was sacked three more times by the Redskins, raising his 2008 total to 26 and a staggering 119 over the past 2.5 seasons. The more blows he takes, the more obvious it becomes that Pittsburgh erred by not acquiring better pass blockers during the offseason.
Roethlisberger entered the game with a bum shoulder and bruised left thumb, not to mention the soreness that comes with absorbing such a beating. He then banged his right hand on the helmet of Redskins defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery while following through on a throw.
After his one-yard sneak gave the Steelers a 10-6 lead, Roethlisberger couldn't take any more physical damage in this game. He sprinted to the locker room with 34 seconds remaining before halftime and didn't return to the sideline until Byron Leftwich was already under center in the third quarter. When Leftwich heaved a 50-yard completion to wide receiver Nate Washington, Roethlisberger could only lift his right arm halfway in celebration.
Leftwich was actually more effective than Roethlisberger, who completed five of 17 passes for 50 yards before exiting. Leftwich adroitly avoided pressure in leading two drives for touchdowns, capping the second with a five-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes. It was a feel-good story for a former franchise quarterback and Washington DC, native who didn't even join Pittsburgh until training camp after washing out in Atlanta and Jacksonville.
"He's a popular guy right now in the locker room," Tomlin said.
But expecting Leftwich to maintain such success over the long haul, if necessary, is probably asking a bit much. Leftwich was injury-prone during his four seasons as a Jaguars starter between 2003 and 2006. Because of his limited mobility and elongated throwing motion, Leftwich is much more of a sitting duck in the pocket than Roethlisberger.
Steelers linebacker Larry Foote was asked whether his team could still thrive if Pittsburgh (6-2) can't keep Roethlisberger upright.
"We can do it," Foote said. "That's the expectation of backups. If one of the starters goes down, you have to fill in his shoes. We have a veteran guy in Byron. He knows what he's doing. We'll keep rolling."
At least for one game, the Steelers rolled onward against a quality NFC East opponent. But the path can quickly wind downhill if the Steelers don't find a way to protect their own quarterback with the same success that they harass others.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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