By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH — Byron Leftwich stared into the sea of cameras and started to laugh.
It’d been awhile — a long while — since the Pittsburgh Steelers backup quarterback found himself thrust into the spotlight. Yet three years after he last started a game and six years after he won one, the former first round draft pick will take the snaps when the streaking Steelers (6-3) host the Baltimore Ravens (7-2) with first place in the AFC North on the line.
Watching good friend and teammate Ben Roethlisberger go down with a sprained right shoulder and dislocated rib isn’t the way Leftwich wanted to step back into the spotlight. Still, it’s what the 32-year-old signed up for when he decided to re-sign with the Steelers last summer rather than try and revive his career as a starter elsewhere.
Leftwich relishes the opportunity to get back on the field. The end of life in relative anonymity? Not so much.
“I joke with Ben all the time, I don’t miss this part of being a quarterback in the NFL,” Leftwich said. “All those conference calls, all those interviews. I tell him all the time I don’t really miss that part of it.”
Maybe, but he better get used to it.
Roethlisberger is out indefinitely, the latest familiar face to be rendered highly paid bystander to one of the league’s most heated rivalries. The Steelers will also be without star safety Troy Polamalu, who will miss his sixth straight game with a right calf injury, while Baltimore captain Ray Lewis remains on the injured reserve-return list with a torn triceps.
“It’s definitely going to be different, a different feel,” Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “But once that whistle blows and the bullets become live, I don’t expect anything less than traditional Ravens/Steelers.”
Suggs admitted he’s “disappointed” he won’t get a chance to chase after Roethlisberger, though he’ll find Leftwich to be a more stationary target. The big-armed seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft hasn’t started since playing three forgettable losses with Tampa Bay in 2009. His last victory in a game in which he took the first offensive snap came on Oct. 8, 2006 when Jacksonville crushed the New York Jets.
“I haven’t heard that,” Leftwich said. “Really?”
It’s been even longer since the Steelers beat the Ravens with somebody other than Roethlisberger under center. Though he’s one of the most durable quarterbacks in the league, Roethlisberger has missed four games against Baltimore through the years. It’s not a coincidence the Steelers are 0-4 in those contests.
Yet Leftwich is confident he can be effective even if he knows he’s can’t replicate the kind of play-extending heroics that have become Roethlisberger’s trademark.
“Let’s be honest, I’m not going to run around, make 2-3 guys miss, roll all the way to the left and find Mike Wallace in the back of the end zone,” Leftwich said. “I’m not capable of doing that. But what I can do is get the ball in the right people’s hands and just be myself.”
The Steelers believe that will be enough.
Pittsburgh went 3-1 in 2010 when Roethlisberger sat out the first four games while serving a suspension for conduct detrimental to the league and Charlie Batch guided the Steelers to a 27-0 rout of St. Louis last December while Roethlisberger nursed a tender left ankle.
“Sure, we went through some games without Ben in the past, and we did all right,” Wallace said. “So, this is a completely different team, but we’ve done it before.”
Besides, the Ravens defense isn’t exactly the same menacing juggernaut that has tormented opponents over the last decade. Baltimore is ranked 26th in the league in yards against and has registered just 16 sacks.
In some ways, the balance of power has switched to the right arm of quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice. The franchise’s identity, however, remains firmly in the grasp of the defense, one that’s trying to find its way without Lewis’ emotional leadership and the playmaking ability of injured cornerback Lardarius Webb.
“When you change something, change is permanent,” Suggs said. “You don’t want to do something one week and then not do it the next. So, we fared pretty well the last two weeks, and we’re just trying to keep it going. So, it’s nothing to be happy about. Then again, it’s nothing to not look at. So, we’re just going to keep trying to get better around here.”
Something the Steelers have been doing over the last month since a miserable 2-3 start had critics touting the window for the core that’s been to three Super Bowls over the last seven seasons had finally closed.
Pittsburgh responded by winning four straight behind a defense that again is tops in the NFL in fewest yards allowed and an offense that was humming along with Roethlisberger at the peak of his powers. He was on pace for career highs in attempts, completions and touchdowns when Kansas City linebacker Tamba Hali pounded the quarterback’s right side into the Heinz Field turf on Monday night.
Now he goes from MVP candidate to mentor, doing for Leftwich what Leftwich has done for him throughout the years. Not that Roethlisberger thinks a guy who was starting in the NFL when Roethlisberger was still in college needs a pep talk every time he jogs off the field.
“Byron knows how to play this game,” Roethlisberger said. “He knows how to play at a high level and I’m just going support him and give him everything he needs.”
Leftwich isn’t overwhelmed by the pressure. He knows what’s at stake.
“I’m not going to go out there and try and be Ben,” he said. “We see the game differently. He’s physically able to do some things that I can’t do, that doesn’t mean I can’t go out there and do my job.”