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Roethlisberger's hazy future thrusts Leftwich into starring role

| Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, 7:48 p.m.
Steelers back up quarterback Byron Leftwich plays against the Cheifs in the second half at Heinz Field Nov. 12, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Ben Roethlisberger is the one player the Steelers couldn't afford to lose as they try to chase down the Ravens. Now that he's gone down with a highly painful injury, the big question is how long their franchise quarterback will be out.

One game? Two games? Both games against the Ravens?

Roethlisberger has a sternoclavicular injury that specialists said can require three to six weeks of recovery. Coach Mike Tomlin lists him as questionable with an SC joint sprain for the Sunday night showdown against Baltimore (7-2) at Heinz Field, but doctors said such an uncommon injury almost never heals so quickly.

Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and the director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the injury more correctly is a dislocation of the joint that connects the sternum to the collarbone — essentially, the part that hooks the arm to the body. The dislocation occurs when ligaments tear under stress.

Surgery usually isn't required, but rest is needed and an athlete often wears his arm in a sling for a few days. An SC joint injury in 2010 forced Brett Favre to end his streak of 297 consecutive games played.

Roethlisberger, who underwent MRI exams Monday night and again Tuesday, also was checked for accompanying injuries, including a possible rib injury.

“It's really painful early on,” said Geier, who is not involved in the case but has treated numerous college and pro athletes. “They try to get the pain under control and they start working on shoulder motion and rotator cuff strength. It can take a few weeks before you're back to 100 percent, other than the big lump there (on the chest).”

Geier added, “There's nothing magical about three weeks. It's just when the pain goes away. You've got to be able to do your job on the field and (have) the motion and the strength it takes to get back ... a functional test will ultimately determine when he returns to play.”

Roethlisberger was driven into the turf by the Chiefs' Justin Houston and Tamba Hali three plays into the second half of the Steelers' 16-13 overtime win Monday night. He immediately signaled to backup Byron Leftwich he was in severe pain, and Leftwich — who is all but certain to start Sunday — finished the game.

Leftwich is in his fourth season with Pittsburgh but hasn't won as an NFL starter since beating the Jets while with Jacksonville in 2006.

The timing of Roethlisberger's injury couldn't be worse, not with home-and-home games against the Ravens in the next three weeks and the Steelers (6-3) possibly needing to sweep to win the AFC North.

“We got a lot of ball in front of us,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “If he plays, we'll expect (Leftwich) to play winning football.”

Leftwich's big windup and slow release wouldn't seem to fit well into Todd Haley's get-rid-of-the-ball quickly throwing scheme, but Tomlin apparently isn't thinking of switching to No. 3 quarterback Charlie Batch, who has a quicker delivery.

Roethlisberger is prospering in the Haley offense with 2,287 yards passing, 17 touchdowns, only four interceptions and a 100.0 quarterback rating. Teammates already were promoting him for the league MVP award.

Now, the Steelers might find out just how important No. 7 is to them.

“It's a great opportunity,” Leftwich said. “We have big things on our minds. We are here preparing to try to win the Super Bowl.”

But the road to New Orleans probably leads through Baltimore, and somebody other than Roethlisberger might be driving.

“I don't care about the opponent,” Tomlin said. “They're nameless, gray faces to me.”

However, Roethlisberger is the Steelers' biggest name, the face of the 2012 team that has won four in a row. Without him, the Steelers lose some of their identity, ruggedness and tough-to-beat aura.

“He always comes back,” wide receiver Mike Wallace. “Any time you don't see him, you know it's serious.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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