PITTSBURGH (AP) — Byron Leftwich trudged off the Heinz Field turf, hand on his aching ribs, an expression that became all too familiar during his last stint as an NFL starting quarterback three years ago.
The Pittsburgh Steelers refused to place blame on Sunday night’s 13-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on the veteran backup, but Leftwich has been around long enough to know where the blame goes when things don’t turn out as planned.
“I don’t know if it’s a setback, it’s a loss,” Leftwich said. “I don’t really want to look at it as a setback. We just have to find a way to win next week.”
Even with lowly Cleveland on the horizon, that hardly seems like a given.
The Ravens did more than give themselves a nice two-game cushion over Pittsburgh (6-4) with six weeks remaining in the season, they also exposed the Steelers’ flaws with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sidelined indefinitely with shoulder and rib injuries.
Pressuring Leftwich at every opportunity, the Ravens disrupted the unit that worked like an 11-man metronome with Roethlisberger under center. Leftwich completed just 18 of 39 passes for 201 yards. He ran for a stunningly athletic 31-yard touchdown in the first quarter but also threw an interception and was sacked three times.
Even worse, the Steelers converted just 5 of 17 (30 percent) of their third-down opportunities, well off their 49 percent conversion rate with Roethlisberger taking the snaps.
“We just never could put two, three, four, five, six plays together,” Leftwich said. “We would make a big play and then we were right back to third-and-9, third-and-8 … You’ve just got to be better on first and second down.”
Something the Steelers failed to do with any regularity against a defense that loaded the line of scrimmage to stop the run, daring Leftwich — who hadn’t won as a starter in more than six years — to be the difference.
Despite insisting he wasn’t rusty, Leftwich underthrew a handful of open receivers and failed to sneak the ball past Baltimore cornerback Corey Graham on a drive-killing third quarter interception.
“I’m telling you the guy made a hell of a play on the ball,” Leftwich said. “I wish I would have done something different in hindsight. I think I would just try to do a different throw, a better throw. That is part of football and I just can’t allow that to happen.”
Particularly if he wants to remain the starter.
The Steelers have another reliable backup in 37-year-old Charlie Batch, who is 5-2 while subbing for Roethlisberger over the years. Batch lacks Leftwich’s big arm but his quick release would fit well into offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s short passing game.
Batch warmed up briefly on the sideline after Leftwich took a blindside hit from Baltimore safety James Ihedigbo midway through the fourth quarter. Team doctors evaluated Leftwich for a rib injury but allowed him to return to the game.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin downplayed any disappointment in Leftwich’s play, saying he thought Leftwich was “great” on a night the Steelers recorded their lowest point total at home since a 3-0 victory over the Dolphins in the middle of a torrential rain storm five years ago.
“He sustained some hits, but that’s football, particularly when you’re talking about this matchup,” Tomlin said. “He did of nice job of communicating where he was and, more than anything, we just wanted to do a nice job of communicating.”
A rematch with the Ravens looms in two weeks, though Pittsburgh’s hopes of catching the Ravens for the AFC North title have all but evaporated. The Steelers would likely need to win in Baltimore — where they’re just 2-7 in the last nine meetings — and have the Ravens stumble to the finish to host a playoff game.
It’s a notion the Steelers cling to, one that seems at least remotely plausible if the defense can continue to thrive. While Baltimore was busy harassing Leftwich, Pittsburgh was doing the same to Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Ravens managed a season-low 200 yards of total offense as the Steelers shut down running back Ray Rice — 20 carries for 40 yards — and never let speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith to get loose.
“We knew that it was going to be a defensive game coming in,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “It normally is. We mixed up a lot of blitzes and zone. Our back end did a great job.”
Something the defense will have to continue to do repeatedly until either Roethlisberger returns or one of the backups finds his footing. Leftwich’s teammates believe he can still get the job even if he’s now 0-7 in his last seven starts dating back to 2006.
“Byron Leftwich is a great quarterback and so is Charlie Batch,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “We knew we had to come out, play hard and prevent (the Ravens) from scoring a lot of points. We just didn’t get the win.”
And Leftwich didn’t get a monkey — 2,234 days in the making — off his back.
“It’s a tough one, we are all upset,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”
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