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Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Season rests on Roethlisberger's shoulder

By Jamison Hensley

Ben Roethlisberger
Without Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh may make the playoffs, but it won't be able to win a Super Bowl.
PITTSBURGH -- There was no collective sigh of relief at Heinz Field, even after Shaun Suisham's 23-yard field goal allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to escape with a 16-13 overtime win over the hapless Kansas City Chiefs. That won't happen until the results of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's MRI are revealed.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the sloppy win that he doesn't know the status of Roethlisberger's injured shoulder. Sources have told ESPN that Roethlisberger sprained his shoulder but the extent of the injury is unknown. That means the Steelers' season is officially in limbo.

Pittsburgh can win regular-season games without Roethlisberger. It can get to the playoffs without him. But it can't win a Super Bowl without him.

It's true that Pittsburgh has survived without Roethlisberger before. The Steelers went 3-1 to start the 2010 season when he was suspended. The difference is the Steelers haven't gone more than four games in a season without him and they haven't been without the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback in the postseason. It was only last season when the Steelers' title run ended when Roethlisberger began to limp with an ankle injury.

Roethlisberger is in the midst of the best season of his career and perhaps mounting an MVP campaign. In adapting to offensive coordinator Todd Haley's quick-hitting passing attack, Roethlisberger has the NFL's sixth-best QBR and is the league's best on third downs this season. How valuable has Roethlisberger been this season? Half of the Steelers' six wins have come from game-winning drives led by him. This is his team.

Even on a night when everything seemed to go wrong for the Steelers, there was a sense that Pittsburgh would eventually pull out the win because it had Roethlisberger. That is, until the third play of the third quarter when he got sandwiched by two Kansas City pass rushers and got his right shoulder driven into the ground. It's unclear how long Roethlisberger will be out, but it didn't look promising when he left the field holding his right arm close to his body. He then was driven down the tunnel on a golf cart before being taken to the hospital for tests.

Tomlin wouldn't characterize his level of concern with the franchise's all-time leading passer.

"I don't live in the hypothetical world," Tomlin said. "I wait until I get information, and then I respond accordingly to that information."

When Roethlisberger left, backup Byron Leftwich took over in his first appearance since the 2010 season. It looked like he hadn't stepped onto the field for two years, based on his ragged play. In his first snaps with the starting offense since training camp, he completed 7 of 14 passes for 73 yards in nearly one half of work, with several of his passes being overthrown (including a potential touchdown toss to Mike Wallace).

In the five drives led by Leftwich, the Steelers managed only a field goal. He was able to get the Steelers deep out of their own territory with a 31-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders. But the two big plays that got Pittsburgh in field goal range were a 22-yard defensive pass interference penalty and a 14-yard flag for roughing the passer, both of which converted third downs.

Byron Leftwich
The Steelers may have to look to Byron Leftwich to carry them to the playoffs if Ben Roethlisberger is out for an extended time.
"The great thing about Byron is he's got a very consistent demeanor, a very calming presence," Tomlin said. "It wasn't a pretty body of work by any of us."

Leftwich is experienced and tested, but he's no Roethlisberger. His lack of mobility and ridiculously long throwing motion (it resembles a pitcher's windup) make him a sitting target on nearly every throw. And he's not going to scramble for 14 yards on third down in the red zone like Roethlisberger did late in the second quarter Monday.

There are seven weeks left in the regular season. Leftwich should be able to lead the Steelers to at least four wins to get them to 10 (Pittsburgh plays the Browns twice and has games against San Diego and Cincinnati at home). But it's hard to gauge what Leftwich can do for an extended period. He hasn't started more than six games in a season since 2005 with Jacksonville. He is 1-1 in the playoffs for his career.

Leftwich was asked whether the Steelers can win the Super Bowl with him at quarterback. "We will see," he said. "We are not going to worry about the Super Bowl right now. We are just going to prepare to try to beat the Baltimore Ravens."

The Steelers have to wonder how many more injuries they can endure this season. They're playing without their leading rusher for the past three seasons (Rashard Mendenhall). They're playing without their leading pass catcher (Antonio Brown). They're playing without their starting fullback (David Johnson) and two starters on the right side of the offensive line (guard David DeCastro and tackle Marcus Gilbert). That's not even counting the loss of the quarterback of the defense (Troy Polamalu).

Now, Pittsburgh has a short week to prepare for the Ravens -- in what will be a battle for first place in the AFC North. And the Steelers may have to play without one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

"It hasn't gone our way for a couple of years now," left tackle Max Starks said. "But we still manage to rise to the occasion in spite of those things. That speaks to the depth and the quality of players on this team. We really have 45 guys who could be starters anywhere else in this league. That's the comforting thing. That's why we don't feel uneasy going into this short week."

There was talk last week that Roethlisberger could miss Sunday night's game against the Ravens because of the birth of his son. Now, the Steelers can only hope they will be without him for one week.

"We have been in this situation before when Ben has gone down," Leftwich said. "[Tomlin] has full confidence in me, so nothing is going to change."

The offense may not change without Roethlisberger. But if he is lost for multiple games or for the season, everything changes for the Steelers.