Training Camp Preview and Roster Projections: Quarterbacks

Because sooner or later, we’ll all be trying to predict the final 53…


Likely Roster Spots: 3

Projected Starter: Byron Leftwich (until Ben Roethlisberger returns from suspension for game No. 5)

Key Training Camp Battles: Leftwich vs. Dennis Dixon for temporary No. 1 QB

Projected for 53-Man Roster: (3) Leftwich, Dixon, Charlie Batch
Note: Roethlisberger will begin the season on the non-injury suspension list and will not count against the Steelers’ 53-man roster limit

Analysis: Never before has an NFL team had as bizarre a situation at quarterback entering training camp as the Steelers will face this week. Then again, never before has a player in American professional major team sports been suspended by a commissioner without being arrested for committing an alleged crime and/or having been found to have broken a specific rule of that league (gambling on games, steroids, etc.).

Acting as judge/jury/appellate court and fascist dictator without consistency or intellect when doling out punishment as he sees fit, NFL commissioner Roger “God”ell put a serious damper on the Steelers’ playoff hopes when he suspended Ben Roethlisberger for 4-6 games after the Pittsburgh quarterback was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a Georgia bar this offseason, an allegation that brought no criminal or civil charges.

While his character is certainly questionable off the field and he appears to be an arrogant ass and chauvinist pig, Roethlisberger is a superstar on the field who is well on his way to being the greatest Steelers signal caller ever.

The Steelers struggled in 2009 due to a poor defense after losing Troy Polamalu and atrocious special teams. But Roethlisberger was mostly brilliant, setting single-season team passing records with a 66.6% completion percentage and 4,328 yards passing in 15 games.

Still, Roethlisberger is probably only the fourth best quarterback in the NFL behind Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Roethlisberger, though, is a winner (2 Super Bowl titles and most career wins at this point of his career of any QB in NFL history). He is also arguably the most clutch quarterback in the league, leading the Steelers to 17 career victories after his team was tied or behind in the fourth quarter.

However, it is illogical for Steeler fans to expect Roethlisberger to play at a Pro-Bowl level upon his likely return for game No. 5. While Roethlisberger will be allowed to partake in training camp and preseason games, he will not be allowed to practice or even be at the Steelers’ training facility while serving his suspension.

In other words, he will return more than a quarter into the season with no practices under his belt in more than a month. He will also be without his favorite receiver in Santonio Holmes, who was traded to the Jets, and the Steelers only top-tier offensive lineman in Willie Colon, who was lost for the year due to an Achilles injury.

How to work in Roethlisberger during training camp and the preseason will be  a challenge for the Steeler coaching staff, particularly since they have not announced a starter for the first four regular-season games among Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch.

All indications point to Leftwich likely being the opening-day starter, much to the chagrin of some of the bloggers on this site who feel the athletic and youthful Dixon offers more upside.

Over his previous seven seasons, Leftwich has been a starting quarterback for the Jaguars, Falcons and Buccaneers, throwing for more than 10,000 yards in his career. The only team he played for and never started for ironically was Pittsburgh, where he served as quality backup who played in five games on the Steelers’ 2008 team that won the Super Bowl.

Leftwich has a big arm and is very tough, evident by what was one of the coolest moments in college football history. However, he may now be the slowest quarterack in the league in terms of both foot speed and release time.

If Leftwich is on his back too much during the first few games — and he and the Steelers’ suspect offensive line will be blitzed constantly — Pittsburgh may have to turn to Dixon. The former Oregon star showcased both moments of brilliance and inexperience in his one career start on a Monday night in Baltimore last season, in which he received short notice that he would get the nod and garnered few reps since Roethlisberger practiced most of that week.

The often-injured Batch is the most accurate of the three quarterbacks who will be on the opening-day roster. However, the 13-year veteran is more of a coach/player at this point of his career. Barring injury to another signal caller, Batch will likely be released when Roethlisberger returns from suspension, as the Steelers will not keep four QBs on their 53-man roster.

But the Homestead native will be around the area and quickly signed to the roster again if the Steelers lose a quarterback at some point during the season. Thus, he remains a nice assest and stable leader for the Steelers organization. Hopefully, he will transition into coaching for Pittsburgh in 2011.

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