Kovacevic: Why pile it all on Leftwich?
If Byron Leftwich were a boxer, he'd have climbed through the ropes Sunday night with a scouting report that he was rusty as a wet razor, that he couldn't connect with the right hook to save his life and that he had anvils for feet.
Then, in one magical sequence, he'd score a first-round knockdown by floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.
Hey, the Steelers were dressed for the latter, right?
And then …
Well, the trouble with this bout at Heinz Field – which went to the Ravens, 13-10, by unanimous decision – is that there were still a lot of rounds to go, a lot of punches to be thrown.
And man, did Leftwich bear the brunt. He emerged little better than Ben Roethlisberger, the man he replaced, with not one but two injuries. The shoulder was sore, the result of a tweak during the otherwise uplifting 31-yard touchdown scramble on the opening drive. And it only multiplied when a rib on his right side was bruised in the fourth quarter.
Yeah, a rib.
When your team's most encouraging news following a critical loss to a detested archrival is that at least this quarterback's rib wasn't threatening his aorta, that's pretty much TKO territory.
“Tough football game,” Mike Tomlin called it.
Tough outlook now, too: The Steelers at 6-4 have a daunting if not unrealistic challenge in catching the Ravens at 8-2 for first in the AFC North. And if they're to overcome that math, they'll do so with either a damaged backup QB or a third-stringer who has barely taken any first-team snaps in a new playbook.
Hello, Charlie Batch?
Wouldn't bet on it. Not if you heard Tomlin's assessment of Leftwich: “I thought it was gritty.”
Said it twice, too.
Ask me, and I stick with Leftwich heading into Cleveland next weekend, if he can heal in time to take a reasonable amount of practice snaps.
But that's if.
This wasn't pretty for Leftwich in performance, either. He finished 18 of 39 for 201 yards and a pick. He struggled on third down, an area in which Roethlisberger is the NFL's best, converting just 5 of 17. He misfired high, low, left, right. He was sacked three times. He was getting his guys killed on screens.
But it's fair to give the benefit of the doubt, too. A few of his trademark bullet passes did hit the mark – 13 attempts of 10-plus yards -- for a dimension that would be lost with Batch behind center. Leftwich also was making his first start in forever and, in the context of his injuries, was outright admirable.
“He played like a tiger,” left tackle Max Starks said.
If you're looking for someone to blame, start with Tomlin and the coaching staff for sticking by Leftwich if they – and roughly 63,466 others – could see he was in enough pain to affect his play.
Tomlin unflinchingly stated afterward that he wasn't considering going to Batch even after Leftwich was sent off in the fourth quarter to have the rib injury evaluated.
“He sustained some hits, but that's football, particularly when you're talking about this matchup,” the coach said. “He did a nice job of communicating where he was.”
Some of Leftwich's teammates recalled that he kept telling everyone he was fine, and Leftwich himself repeated “I'm OK” four times to reporters.
But come on. Everyone saw those dying quails near the end.
If you're looking deeper than that, try right tackle Mike Adams for being eaten alive on the pass rush by the Ravens' Paul Kruger.
Try the receivers for failing to get open yet again, this despite a decimated Baltimore secondary. Be sure Mike Wallace's agent won't bring up these two games in contract talks next summer.
Try Todd Haley for essentially abandoning the run after months of building it up, and this when the Steelers needed it most. Even once it finally got going in the fourth quarter, he'd mysteriously switch to shotgun in the red zone.
What was that?
It was a better idea to have the crushed-to-a-pulp QB pull the offense through?
Maybe the lone non-defensive positive out of this for the Steelers is that all of the above issues are correctable. Antonio Brown, the painfully obvious true No. 1 among the receivers, will be back. Marcus Gilbert will be back, too, so Adams can sit. And Haley might learn to not only use his running game but also to try to go outside the tackles occasionally, to go with Jonathan Dwyer more often and to reintroduce Heath Miller to the football.
We'll know soon enough if the Steelers will be counted out or saved by the bell, now that the quarterback position is being plucked apart rib by rib.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached