The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t skip a beat with Byron Leftwich replacing injured Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback Sunday night.
That’s right. Leftwich can do everything Roethlisberger can do. He showed the same stage presence as Roethlisberger when he clutched his throwing shoulder on every other play.
His shoulder bothered him because for some reason his touchdown dance involved flopping to the ground and landing on that shoulder.
Leftwich temporarily commandeered Roethlisberger’s place in the hearts of Steelers fans when he scrambled 31 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Steelers lead 31 seconds into the game. So whenever he showed pain the rest of the evening, it gave Steelers fans the same feeling as parents whose teenagers aren’t home yet at midnight. It’s the same feeling Steelers fans get when Roethlisberger is hurt or acts like he’s hurt.
All right, all right, so maybe Roethlisberger doesn’t have two Super Bowl rings because of his dramatic flair. Leftwich is no Roethlisberger, which is one of the reasons the Ravens defeated the Steelers 13-10 at Heinz Field.
It wasn’t the only reason, though.
If the Steelers’ defense doesn’t start taking the ball away, the Steelers won’t get very far in the playoffs no matter who’s calling the signals.
The Steelers forced no turnovers Sunday night and have forced just nine this season, tied for 30th in the NFL.
It might seem nitpicky to critique a defense that yielded just 211 yards and was only responsible for six points. The Steelers held Joe Flacco to 164 passing yards and Ray Rice to 40 rushing yards on 20 carries. They got off the field on third down 11 of 14 times.
Sure, the Steelers stopped the Ravens, but in this rivalry, that’s only half the job. It’s like brushing but not flossing.
The history of this feud is marked by game-changing turnovers, including Troy Polamalu’s pick-six that sealed the 2008 AFC championship game and Polamalu’s karate-chop strip sack of Flacco that essentially won the AFC North for the Steelers in 2010.
A turnover or two Sunday night might have been enough to repair the damage of the two turnovers the Steelers committed as well as their special teams snafu.
The euphoria and we-can-do-this attitude sparked by Leftwich’s improbable touchdown run faded like a New Year’s resolution in February by the end of the first quarter, when the Ravens led 10-7 because of a Mike Wallace fumble that led to a field goal and Jacoby Jones’ 63-yard touchdown on a punt return.
Perhaps the Steelers’ defense would be picking off passes and popping the ball loose a little more if Polamalu were playing, but he played in all 16 games last season, and the Steelers still were last in the NFL with 15 takeaways.
Part of the problem last season is that the Steelers sacked opposing quarterbacks just 35 times, their fewest since 1990. The Steelers (6-4) will struggle to match that meager output this season. They have 18 sacks through 10 games.
LaMarr Woodley’s fourth sack of the season came early in the fourth quarter. James Harrison gave the Steelers one more desperate shot at tying the game by sacking Flacco with two minutes left.
It was just the second sack of the season for the 34-year-old Harrison, who hasn’t been the same since his offseason knee injury. Jason Worilds, the Steelers’ second-round draft pick in 2010, hasn’t shown enough to take Harrison’s starting job away from him.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis is really the only player providing this defense with any youthful infusion. The Steelers’ inability to get turnovers makes this aging defense seem like an old dog that can no longer hunt.
This loss likely throws the Steelers off the trail of an AFC North title. It drops them two games behind the Ravens (8-2), with Roethlisberger likely to miss Steelers-Ravens II in two weeks.
The Steelers remain in the thick of the playoff hunt, however. If the season ended after 10 games, they’d be the No. 6 seed.
The Cincinnati Bengals (5-5) are the only team attempting to swim across the two-game moat that’s separated the haves from the have-nots in the AFC for much of the season. They’re the only team within a game of the final playoff spot. The Steelers currently own the tiebreaker over the Bengals with their win at Cincinnati. They face them at home in Week 16. Roethlisberger might be back for that one.
He probably won’t be back for next week’s game in Cleveland. The Browns might be 2-8, but they were 1-11 when they dealt a reeling Steelers team their fifth straight loss in 2009.
The Steelers might be teetering on the brink of a similar collapse this season the longer Roethlisberger is sidelined.
It would help if Leftwich had a short field to work with every now and then.