While the bulk of the Pittsburgh Steelers had cleared the practice field on Thursday afternoon, Byron Leftwich worked overtime as he launched a deep rainbow to connect with Emmanuel Sanders in the end zone.
Never mind that the defensive backs were already in the locker room and they worked against air. This felt good for Leftwich, the 10th-year veteran with the enormous task of replacing injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for Sunday night’s slugfest against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field — and maybe longer.
Big Byron is trying to get in sync. When he reared back for his final heave of the day, it looked pretty enough. The ball traveled about 40 yards. Mike Wallace caught it and jogged back, grinning.
“I haven’t thrown to these guys since Latrobe,” Leftwich told USA TODAY Sports a few minutes later, referring to the site of the Steelers training camp. “That’s two months ago.
“We’re just getting rhythm. At this point, I don’t want those guys to do anything different than what they’ve been doing. I want to be the guy making all the adjustments.”
Weeks like this are why Leftwich, 32, still has a job in the NFL. This is an emergency. Roethlisberger revealed on Wednesday that a dislocated rib injury is more painful and threatening than the sprained sternoclavicular joint in his throwing arm that the team announced as his injury. According to Big Ben, the rib could puncture his aorta.
It is unclear when Roethlisberger might return.
As much as Leftwich nobly declares that he doesn’t want teammates to have to adjust to his presence, that is undoubtedly key to the equation. In the next-man-up NFL, that’s a way of life that the Steelers can surely attest to. Roethlisberger will be the 10th starter to miss at least one game this season, his setback overshadowing the loss of explosive wideout Antonio Brown, who also triggers the return game on special teams.
Adjust they must. To this point, it has worked out. All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu has missed seven games due a calf injury, the running back position has been in constant flux, pass-rush menace James Harrison hasn’t peaked yet and the Steelers are still 6-3 with a chance to snatch first place from the Ravens on Sunday night.
Yet no injury loss seems as threatening as this case with Roethlisberger, whom teammates lobbied for as a league MVP candidate last week. He has been stinging opponents with an NFL-best 117.2 passer rating on third downs this season, but got hurt on his biggest mistake during Monday night’s victory against the Kansas City Chiefs, when he held the football for too long.
Now Leftwich — once the face of the franchise with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but a backup journeyman since he was unceremoniously dumped by Jack Del Rio in 2007 — just might have to save the Steelers season. Imagine that.
“Byron doesn’t have be more than he is,” says offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “Everybody just needs to do their job.”
Is Leftwich out to prove something?
“I’m not trying to prove nothing to nobody,” he said, adding a hearty chuckle as he stood in front of his locker. “I’m too old for that. I’m just trying to do my job and win the game. I’m not going to put any added pressure on this. I know what I am. People in the locker room know what I am.”
No doubt, Leftwich brings a veteran’s swagger to this, even if he was admittedly rusty when he came off the bench on Monday night. He is poised, seemingly unfazed by the outside noise. And like always, he lacks nothing in the leadership department.
When Mike Tomlin ruled Roethlisberger out on Wednesday, it seemed a bit odd that with the mind games that exists in the cloak-and-dagger NFL, the Steelers coach didn’t milk another day or two of intrigue. Then again, by not hedging, Tomlin sent a strong message to his team about supporting Leftwich.
As Haley put it, they could plan accordingly. That has meant Leftwich and Haley can implement some of the tweaks they’ve discussed for weeks to tailor the game plan for the backup. Until now, Leftwich hasn’t worked with the first-team offense since training camp, getting by on the “mental reps” as he watched Roethlisberger and contemplated how he would run certain plays differently.
“He’s got some things he feels strongly about,” Haley said. “We’ve got to cater to Byron’s strengths. My main thing to him is, ‘Don’t try to be Ben. Be Byron.’ “
Don’t expect Leftwich to extend plays like Roethlisberger, who is prone to shed tacklers, roll deep out of the pocket throw darts across the field. Leftwich’s arm is big enough, but he’s always been less mobile than most quarterbacks.
Then there’s his slow, winding release. That was a criticism when he came out of Marshall in 2003, and nearly a decade later it is still a topic.
“I’m not looking for style points,” he says. “I don’t have to throw for 400 or 500 yards for us to win the game. And that’s all we need to do: win the game. Getting older, that’s what I’ve come to understand about this league.
“But the thing that really gives me comfort is that I’m going out on the field with some guys who know how to play the game. I don’t have to win it by myself. I’ve just got to make the plays they expect the quarterback to make.”
When Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, the Steelers hardly collapsed. With Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon at quarterback, they started a Super Bowl run with a 3-1 record.
The one loss? It came against the Ravens, who are surely looking to repeat history.