One of the most interesting storylines of the NFL preseason – one the few truly interesting ones, really – has been the quarterback situation in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger is likely to see his suspension decreased from six games to four, but the team – a serious Super Bowl contender in the eyes of many – will have to play without their biggest star for at least a month. That means that they have to find a guy who can not only start those four or six games, but who can keep the team’s hopes and dreams alive until Big Ben is back in action. This is a unique situation to consider, and a fun one to speculate about. It’s also an important situation for NFL handicappers to think about because there is going to be a lot of attention paid to Pittsburgh games, and there will be a chance for value if you call the games right. As you get ready for the regular season to start here are four things to consider about the situation:
The alternatives – If Big Ben can’t play then someone else has to. That’s not great news for this team. Charlie Batch is in the mix, and he has started for the Steelers in the past, but the race has seemed to be between Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon. Leftwich started as the leader, but Dixon was storming ahead in practice and looking like he might be closing the gap. But then Sunday happened. Roethlisberger started the game, but Dixon was given his chance to shine starting in the second quarter. He certainly didn’t step up under pressure. He threw two interceptions and frequently looked flustered. That was still better than Leftwich – he missed on all four pass attempts he had. Batch – the odd man out – completed three of four passes for a TD and a pick. The picture is no more clear than it was before the game. Whoever starts the season at the helm the problem now is that it will be hard for the team to have as much confidence in him as they ideally would. Confidence will be crucial in this situation, so that’s far from bad news. Both guys have some things they do very well. The problem, though, is that neither is close to a full package. No matter which guy they go with the chances are high that there will be easy reasons to second guess the decision. That won’t help.
The schedule – The schedule could be worse, but it could be a whole lot better for the Steelers, too. The temporary starter will have to open up at home against a very promising Atlanta team. That won’t be easy and the NFL oddsmakers already have the Steelers as a 2.5 point underdog. A road trip to Tennessee in week two could be a tough one as well. A third week trip to Tampa Bay should be a holiday for the team unless things go really badly. Week four at home against Baltimore is not only a tough game but a crucially important division one as well. If Big Ben isn’t back after four weeks then a bye week is followed by a home game against Cleveland that shouldn’t be tough and then a trip to Miami that definitely will be. If the team wants to be a factor in a very tough AFC North then they need to win three of their first four games. Two would perhaps be survivable, but far from ideal. That puts a whole lot of pressure on the offense and the new guy, and extra pressure isn’t going to help.
Past experience – A lot of people are making the argument that this team won’t be as negatively impacted as they could be by this situation because they have had some experience with Big Ben missing time and creating drama in the past. While he has done both I’m not sure that the past has a lot to teach in this case. The biggest absence of his career came in 2005. He missed four games that time, and the team won the two easier ones and lost the two tougher ones – including one to Jacksonville and Leftwich. The obvious difference between that time and this one is the coaching staff. Last year Dixon filled in and they lost a game to Baltimore in unimpressive fashion. I don’t believe that this team has been prepared for this situation based on what they have already been through. That doesn’t mean that they won’t handle it – just that we can’t be sure they will.
The QB reliance – The Steelers have made a notable and significant change in their offensive approach during the Tomlin era. In 2007 they had an elite running back in Willie Parker and they did what we have come to expect Pittsburgh teams to do – they ran the ball. They passed on just 46 percent of plays that year. Just two seasons later the pass/run ratio was reversed – they threw the ball just short of 56 percent of the time last year. That kind of a shift in offense is far more than just incidental – it requires a commitment to a whole different approach. It worked so well for them because Roethlisberger has a big arm and is very accurate. There’s no reason to think that they would want to step away from that approach with Big Ben this year. That means that it would be hard for them not to rely on the pass fairly heavily with the fill-in because they don’t want to be using one offense without Roethlisberger and another one with him. Neither of these guys are likely as accurate as Big Ben, though, and they aren’t going to run the pass game as well as a result. What I’m saying is that I’d feel a lot better about this team in this situation two years ago when the running game was king than I do now.