Leftwich can beat Ravens, needs big help from o-line

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced Wednesday that Byron Leftwich will start Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens due to the injuries suffered by Ben Roethlisberger on Monday night against the Chiefs.

Roethlisberger was Pittsburgh’s team MVP up to this point – he’s thrown for 2,287 yards, 17 touchdowns, only four picks and has a quarterback rating of 100.0 –  so every Steelers fan should assume the Ravens will embarrass Pittsburgh in their bumblebee unis, throw their Terrible Towels into the trash and pray to god that the NHL lockout ends soon.

Steelers fans should panic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wait, no. They shouldn’t.

The Steelers offense is certainly disadvantaged without Big Ben, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t beat the Ravens on Sunday. They have plenty of other playmakers who can move the ball and score points, but it will require the biggest team effort of the season from the biggest men on the team.

So far this year, the Steelers pass protection has allowed its quarterback some room to breath.The team has allowed 19 sacks in nine games, which ranks No. 7 in the NFL. Roethlisberger’s escapability certainly helped bolster that number, but he didn’t do it all on his own. The line must continue to protect the quarterback, especially because of Leftwich’s impression of a Hideo Nomo windup.

If they do give him time, there’s still the occasion for burner Mike Wallace to go deep for quick-strike scores, the play that he’s built a career around. When Leftwich is under center, “deep” gets even deeper. That’s the one advantage that Leftwich has over Roethlisberger; Lefty has an absolute cannon for an arm. This means big plays could still be in order if the timing is right.

To help set up the passing game, the Steelers MUST run the ball effectively, which they are more than capable of doing. To achieve this, the big men up front must duplicate their performances from earlier this season against the Giants, Redskins and Eagles. They helped a backfield of backups rush for 158, 140 and 167 yards, respectively in those games.

Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are good backs, but they don’t have the experience or raw talent to beat defenses by themselves the way guys like Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster can. It was the o-line that won Redman and Dwyer the majority of those yards in their best games and it’ll be the O-line that decides how well the offense performs in prime time at Heinz Field on Sunday night.

Against the Chiefs, there was a letdown by the offensive front as the Steelers rushed for only 95 yards. But they were going up against an abnormally stout Chief’s front seven who played their best game of the season. Pittsburgh Tribune Review reporter Joe Starkey reported that Pittsburgh offensive linemen said the Chiefs were calling out the Steelers plays before they ran them, suggesting they were familiar with Haley’s unaltered offense that he brought from his tenure at Kansas City. Expect a bounce-back game on Sunday from the big men because there’s a good chance they’ll have an easier time handling the Ravens defense.

As strange as it sounds, Baltimore ranks 26th in the NFL in run defense, allowing an average of 132 yards per game and about four yards per carry. They also rank 26th in the NFL in overall defense.

Yes, gone are the Sundays when men in purple struck the fear of god into quarterbacks and other offensive personnel.

They’re missing two of their biggest pieces in linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb, who both suffered season-ending injuries earlier in the year. Even the top defenders who will take the field aren’t close to being healthy and executing at their highest level.  Linebacker Terrell Suggs hasn’t been close to duplicating his defensive MVP performance from a season ago since returning from an Achilles injury (10 tackles and one sack in three games) and future hall-of-fame safety Ed Reed just isn’t playing with the same lock-down consistency we’re used to seeing because of nagging shoulder, leg and neck injuries.

If the Steelers could pick a time to try and strike this Ravens defense, it’d be now. It just so happens that they won’t have Roethlisberger to do it. But show me a struggling and battered defense facing a strong offensive line and I’ll show you a 10-year veteran quarterback who can be successful against it.

Still worried about how Leftwich will play? It’s still a legitimate concern.

It’s tough to predict how effective Leftwich will be in his first start since Sept. 27, 2009 (in that game he was 7-16 for 22 yards and one interception in a scoreless loss against the Giants). He’s winless in his last six games as a starter and he hasn’t won since Oct. 8, 2006 while he was playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars. And against the Ravens, Lefty is 1-1 as a starter.

But it’s not like he’s is entering into a foreign offense and needs to figure out what the letters and numbers on his wristband mean. He knows the playbook and he’s taken plenty of snaps in practice all season long.

This isn’t Leftwich’s first rodeo.

He’s played in 59 NFL games and thrown for 58 touchdowns and more than 10,000 yards. Plus, he averages less than one interception per game. The cobwebs were dusted off when he came in cold against the Chiefs on Monday so he should be prepared to play at game speed.

And speaking of preparation, remember about nine months ago when Roethlisberger announced his wife was pregnant? It drew a lot of chatter in Pittsburgh because the due date would be around the time that the Steelers would face the Ravens. Odds were good that if Mrs. Big Ben had the baby on time, Mr. could miss a game against Baltimore. So what are the odds that Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley didn’t prepare for this scenario? The reasons might be different but the situation is still the same. There had to be a contingency plan.

Does Tomlin seem worried in this press conference Wednesday?

(Scoff) Next question.

Haley won’t have to alter the offense much with Ben out for the passing game to be successful. Tomlin said it himself that there will be only subtle changes in the offensive game plan. Haley will try to make it as easy as possible for Leftwich to hit open receivers so that probably means a lot of shorter passes and check downs, especially if they can get the run game going. If you’ve been paying any attention to the Steelers this season, you’ve heard the words “dink and dunk” about as much as you’ve seen commercials for beer, trucks and Cialis.

Haley’s offense doesn’t put a ton of pressure on the quarterback to make tight throws deep down field. It involves a lot of check downs and three-step drops. It was designed to get the ball out quickly so Roethlisberger would avoid getting hit too often and could stay healthy (ironically). But for the most part, it’s worked. It’s true that getting the ball out quickly isn’t Leftwich’s forte. But in terms of throwing underneath and checking the ball down to avoid a pass rush, he should be able to do an adequate job as long as the offensive line can give him time to drop back.

(Pittsburgh collectively gulps)

Have a little faith and trust that the Steelers and their veteran QB can pull this one out, because they certainly think they can.

No panic necessary.

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About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Assistant Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

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