By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers have been searching for clarity in their quarterback situation throughout the preseason, but an injury to the prospective regular-season starter during the preseason finale with the Carolina Panthers Thursday muddled it even more.
Eight-year veteran Byron Leftwich, expected to be the Steelers’ starting quarterback to open the season while Ben Roethlisberger is suspended, suffered a left knee sprain less than five minutes into the second quarter. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said the injury would be evaluated after Leftwich has an MRI.
“That’s unfortunate, but it’s football,” Tomlin said. “We understand that, and based on the information that we receiver, of course, we’ll respond accordingly in the best interest of our football team.
“(And) I think the appropriate thing to do for us at this point is to wait to get the information on the extent of his injury before we talk about the possibilities. There are many possibilities based on the information that we’ll receive. I think it’s prudent just to wait until we get that information.”
Tomlin and the coaches determined that Dennis Dixon would replace Leftwich, and he threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders. That gave the Steelers a 10-0 advantage, and they would go on to win, 19-3. But Dixon wasn’t around for the remaining points.
“It’s unfortunate for Byron to go through what he went through, but this team has to go forward,” Dixon said. “And it’s an opportunity for me. … I don’t know anything about his injury, and I didn’t get a chance to talk with him. They told me my night was done after the touchdown pass.
“But I didn’t ask any questions about it. (And) I have no idea who will start. We’ll see that at practice Monday. I’m excited, if it does come my way, but I’m even keel. I never get too high or too low.”
Charlie Batch, a 14-year NFL veteran on the verge of being cut, played more than replaced Dixon for the remainder of the first half and played the entire second half. He completed 3 of just 4 passes during that time and could be the Steelers’ regular-season starter now, as it appears unlikely that Leftwich will be healthy enough to start the season.
“Obviously, you don’t want to wish an injury on anybody, and I feel for Byron because he worked so hard to get to this point,” Batch said. “I didn’t see the play, exactly, (but) when I saw him go down that’s when I knew it was serious (And) when we got down to two quarterbacks there (to start the season), you want to keep everybody healthy. (But) I think it’s still in good hands here.
“They’ll determine this weekend what’s going to happen, but whatever it is I’m ready to go. I feel good, and we have the weekend and another seven days to get ready for Atlanta. … When you go back to April, nobody knew what was going to happen after they brought Byron in here. I didn’t know anything, but I had to be ready. And I’m still ready to play if they need me to go in there.”
The Steelers must reduce their roster by 22 players by Saturday, so the final preseason game was the last chance for those on the bubble to impress the coaching staff. One player who might have done that was running back Jonathan Dwyer, who ran 20 times for 86 yards in the second half.
Dwyer, who also ran for 80-plus yards last week, was solid in two preseason games after injuries and lackluster play dotted his first training camp with the club. He likely is still a close call, but certainly isn’t the long shot he was just a couple weeks ago.
“I’m just trying to be physical like Steelers running backs are supposed to be,” Dwyer said. “There was a good opportunity for me to get into a rhythm tonight, and that allowed me to be productive. They obviously believe in me and put the ball in my hands, and that motivates me to go out and play hard. (And), hopefully, things work out because I love this team and this city.”
Wideouts and return men Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown sealed their roster spots with solid preseason finales. Sanders had three catches for 66 yards and the one touchdown, while Brown had two for eight. Brown also returned one punt 23 yards, while Sanders had three for 33.
Stefan Logan had two punt returns for 15 yards and one kickoff for 28, and that probably isn’t enough to put him on the 53-man roster.
Defensively, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester again led the way with six tackles, including a sack, while cornerback Crezdon Butler also had six stops and a pass breakup. Both deserve to make the team, although they were long shots when training camp got under way.
Nick Eason should have solidified his spot on the line with two big tackles and a sack. Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett and Anthony Madison played well on special teams, but Thaddeus Gibson did not record a tackle and might end up on the practice squad.
Tomlin said that the team will meet Friday and could begin the process on initial cuts.