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Can the Steelers Still Count on Beating Rookie Quarterbacks?

Just when it seems the Pittsburgh Steelers hit rock bottom, a rookie quarterback awaits on their schedule.

Losing to inferior competition has become a habit in recent years, but the Steelers seemed to dip to a new low last week.

Not only was that a winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that beat them with a last-minute touchdown at Heinz Field, it was a team that was used and abused 56-14 by a very ordinary Atlanta Falcons team 10 days earlier.

Blake Bortles appears to be the perfect prescription for what ails the Steelers (2-2) when they visit the Jacksonville Jaguars (0-4) Sunday.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Dick LeBeau is 17-2 against rookie quarterbacks since he became the Steelers’ defensive coordinator in 2004. That statistical nugget is one of the few buoys the Steelers can cling to during this water-treading phase of .500 football that has lasted for almost three years.

After their 0-4 start and a bye last season, there was Geno Smith. The Steelers defeated the New York Jets 19-6 for their first win.

After allowing 55 points and 629 yards at New England, both franchise worsts, the Steelers dropped to 2-6 and the franchise appeared to be on the verge of ruin. But there was EJ Manuel. The Steelers defeated the Buffalo Bills 23-10 at Pittsburgh and sparked a 6-2 finish that almost earned them a playoff berth.

Now, here’s Bortles, the third pick in the 2014 draft. He’ll be making his second career start. In a game and a half, he’s completed 43 of 61 passes with three touchdowns and four interceptions. He was 29 for 37 with a touchdown and two picks in the Jaguars’ 33-14 loss at San Diego last week.

It’s realistic to believe Bortles will turn out better than some of the rookie fodder that LeBeau has out-witted.

Beating Bortles won’t be as easy as beating John Beck, Jimmy Clausen or Colt McCoy. The presence of such stiffs on this list begs a closer look at this hallowed piece of LeBeau lore.

There are plenty of decent quarterbacks who have fallen victim to LeBeau’s defense as rookies. Two of the best ones on this list, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, played against two of the Steelers’ most impenetrable defenses. The Steelers beat Manning late in a 15-1 season and beat Flacco three times during their championship season in 2008.

The chinks in the Steelers’ defensive armor began to show in 2011. That was Andy Dalton’s rookie year, and the Steelers beat him twice. But their victory over Blaine Gabbert and the Jaguars came down to a Hail Mary, evidence of how hollow the Steelers’ 12-4 record was that year before Tim Tebow bounced them from the playoffs.

Since then, every win over a rookie quarterback comes with a “yeah, but.”

The Steelers soundly defeated Robert Griffin III and the Redskins 27-12 at Heinz Field six months after he was chosen second overall in the 2012 draft. But his receivers dropped seven passes that day.

Four weeks later, the Steelers lost to Brandon Weeden and the Browns in Cleveland. But that wasn’t the fault of the defense. The Steelers turned the ball over eight times that afternoon.

Geno Smith and EJ Manuel? They’re the poster children for the pathetic 2013 quarterback class. Manuel already has lost his starting job and Smith is on shaky ground as the Jets starter.

Those names ultimately could be lumped into the same class as Charlie Frye, Bruce Gradkowski, Beck, McCoy, Clausen and Gabbert.

If Bortles is on his way to a career comparable to that of Manning, Flacco or even Dalton, the Steelers are in trouble Sunday.

The rookie versions of Manning, Flacco and Dalton had to go up against the likes of James Farrior, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith. Those were the days when the Steelers routinely sacked quarterbacks, forced turnovers and protected leads.

Those days are long gone.

If the Steelers continue on their current course, the time will come when they no longer can bank on wins over rookie quarterbacks.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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