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Starkey: Leftwich can handle it

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Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Steelers back up quarterback Byron Leftwich plays against the Cheifs in the second half at Heinz Field Nov. 12, 2012.

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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 11:20 p.m.
 

The purpose here is to offer a defense of Byron Leftwich, but I'll let Marcus Gilbert go first.

Gilbert tweeted the following item Wednesday: “Wow amazing all the hatred towards Leftwich those people can kiss my (butt)! — m.gilbert”

Thank you, Marcus.

Leftwich defended Leftwich, too. Pretty fervently. All I had to do was mention his windup. Panicked fans are wondering how Leftwich can execute Todd Haley's quick-pass offense (I didn't say dink-and-dunk) with a windup longer than “Lord of the Rings III.”

Leftwich has been hearing about the windup since his college days. Does he buy the idea that it compromises his ability to get rid of the ball quickly?

“No. I don't,” he said. “I normally defend myself and say a whole bunch of numbers (when the topic arises), but I'll save that for the offseason.”

Actually, he saved it for the very next sentence.

“Hey, man, I've thrown the ball the way I've thrown the ball my whole entire life. I've played 10 years in this league, and to play this long, they don't just let guys that can't play sit there. I don't think about ‘his mobility, his windup, he can't do this, he can't do that.' I try to worry about the things I can do.”

The things he can do should suffice when the Steelers face the Baltimore Ravens without Ben Roethlisberger, though it's hard to predict how an athlete will react after spending the better part of three years in mothballs.

Leftwich isn't ancient. He's 32. His game is no mystery, either. He's a pocket passer. A fastball pitcher. He can make all the throws, including simple ones to Heath Miller without using a full windup (he can pitch from the stretch). He is smart. He is competitive. And maybe most importantly — in the role of backup — he has a keen sense of his weaknesses.

“Yeah, I have a long windup,” Leftwich said. “I'm not the fastest guy in the world. But I believe I can play a little bit. We'll just see Sunday night.”

Listening to reaction around town, you'd think the Steelers were turning to Brady Quinn or Dennis Dixon.

People are quick to tell you Leftwich has lost six straight starts with three different teams. They'll mention he has started one game in 30 months and has never started for the Steelers, despite seemingly being on their roster since 1987.

They'll remind you that he moves slower than the Mario Lemieux statue. And the windup. Did I mention the windup?

I'm not saying Leftwich is Kurt Warner. There are reasons he isn't a starter anymore.

But my sense is that the Steelers are in steady hands.

Remember Dixon's starts against the Ravens and the Falcons? He lost one via interception and easily could have lost the Atlanta game had Falcons defenders not had a bad case of butter fingers.

Combine all of Leftwich's appearances in a Steelers uniform — preseason and regular season — and these are the pertinent numbers: 126 attempts, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions, 107.2 passer rating.

What's it mean?

At the least, it's a strong indication that Leftwich will heed the No. 1 rule for a No. 2 quarterback: Don't lose the game.

The rampant criticism of Leftwich's performance Monday was ridiculous. He did no worse than the other two quarterbacks (Matt Cassel, Roethlisberger) who played that night.

After missing on his first three attempts, Leftwich completed 7 of 11 passes. He had two dropped. He also took a huge hit in delivering a pass that was close enough for Emmanuel Sanders to draw an interference call.

Leftwich wasn't the quarterback who made the game-losing mistake. Cassel was. Give him a week of reps, and he has a chance to be a little better against the 26th-ranked Ravens defense. And even if Antonio Brown is out again, the Steelers aren't exactly the 3-13 Buccaneers of 2009 — the last team for which Leftwich started.

“It gives me comfort, understanding who I'm going out there with,” he said. “This ain't the Bad News Bears.”

Bad news? The Steelers are enduring their share.

But they could do a whole lot worse than Byron Leftwich behind center.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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