The Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Ben Roethlisberger‘s season seemingly hangs in the balance after suffering a shoulder injury on Monday Night Football against the Kansas City Chiefs. Roethlisberger landed hard on his elbow and initial reports don’t appear to be promising, although those reports remain unofficial and ambiguous. Byron Leftwich replaced Roethlisberger and helped his team to an overtime victory against the lowly AFC West opposition.
Leftwich completed seven of 14 passes for 73 yards. The Steelers obviously altered their approach with their backup quarterback on the field, but not drastically as they adjusted on the fly. Should Roethlisberger miss an extended period of time, the team will be able to create a better gameplan to suit his skill-set. The formation of the Steelers’ offense so far this season simply won’t work with Leftwich under center.
A large portion of the Steelers’ offensive production has been based around completing short passes. That philosophy was installed to help the offensive line and take advantage of the Steelers’ play-making wide receivers’ talents in space. Even without Antonio Brown in the lineup, who suffered an ankle injury last week, the Steelers continued with that approach in this game. Even before Roethlisberger left the game, the Chiefs had established an effective gameplan to force Roethlisberger to throw to his tight ends. Once Leftwich came into the game, the Steelers’ original gameplan was almost redundant.
Leftwich is perfectly capable of completing short passes on a consistent basis, but his drawn out passing motion allows defenders to read where the football is going. That extra split second is often the difference between a receiver being in space, and three defenders arriving with the football. That is a complete contrast to Roethlisberger’s throwing motion, while it is not exceptionally quick, his ability to pump fake means that defenders can’t cheat towards receivers as soon as he turns his shoulders.
With any backup quarterback, the natural reaction is to rely on the running game. For the Steelers, their running game has been anemic at times and way too inconsistent. Last night Jonathan Dwyer only had 56 yards on 19 carries and dived at the end of his longest run at a time when he should have been looking to go to the endzone. Isaac Redman started the game, but didn’t fair any better as he only managed eight carries for 21 yards along, with a key turnover. Redman showed little understanding of the situation he was in as he lost the ball fighting for inches on a first and very long run up the middle.
Redman, Dwyer, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey have all proven to be inconsistent backs, despite playing behind an improved offensive line. Now that teams won’t respect the passing game as much, things aren’t going to get any easier for the quartet. The Steelers have to establish the run with Leftwich under center. Leftwich is a quarterback who has his limitations, but with a strong arm and two receivers capable of going deep, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace(three when Antonio Brown returns), the Steelers must move to an offense that is best on taking shots down field.
In order to successfully do that, they must first establish the run however. Leftwich isn’t a mobile quarterback and the offensive line would be exposed trying to give him enough time in the pocket to go deep from play-to-play. Furthermore, with teams already worried about Mike Wallace‘s speed, rarely can the Steelers get open shots deep in the first place. If they start games just looking to go deep, teams will play Cover-2 all day.
Instead, the Steelers’ best hope is for Rashard Mendenhall to get healthy. When Roethlisberger last missed an extended period of time, with valuable games on the schedule, Mendenhall carried the offense as a combination of Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch manned the passing game. The Steelers gave Mendenhall 89 carries in just four games as he scored four touchdowns and 411 yards. The team went 3-1, losing just a close loss to the Baltimore Ravens at home.
Since then, Mendenhall has suffered a torn ACL and is currently dealing with an Achilles issue. He played in just one full game this year, Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles, but at least showed in that game that his knee injury wasn’t going to have any lingering effects on his production. Mendenhall carried the ball 13 times for 68 yards and had three receptions for 33 yards. He scored what proved to be a decisive touchdown in a 16-14 victory. Mendenhall showed in that game that he was still clearly the team’s best running back despite some upstart performances here and there from other backs.
Nobody else on the team’s roster has proven to combine the physicality and dynamism, along with the consistency, that is required of a feature back. If the Steelers can get Mendenhall back within the next two weeks, they could base their offense around him and allow Leftwich to establish a deep passing game off of his hard running. Of course, having Redman and Dwyer as backups then extenuates their value and allows the whole offense to be more abrasive. Combine that abrasive running with Wallace, Sanders and Brown’s ability to go deep, and the Steelers could very well make the playoffs without Roethlisberger.
Of course, that is presuming that the defense continues to play at a very high level.
Cian Fahey tweets mostly NFL @Cianaf