So What Can We Expect From Big Ben When He Returns From Suspension?

Historically, Week 3 of the preseason is the time to get starters one last long look before the games actually count. The problem for the Steelers is that Ben Roethlisberger has been suspended for at least the first month of the season and nobody knows what the hell to expect from Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon.

Here’s what we’ve learned/been reminded of in three weeks of meaningless football action:

* Dixon can absolutely shred second- and third-teamers. So if there’s a way to get the Falcons, Bucs, Titans and Ravens scrubs on the field, then the Steelers are all set.

* Leftwich has all the mobility of a wheel chair with both parking breaks engaged. If the offensive line goes pass-blocking optional, not only it will affect Byron’s well being, it’ll muck up the rush game, too, because defenses will just stack the line and pick off running backs fish-in-a-barrel style.

And then there’s this, which we haven’t really talked about because we’re focused on all the other personnel issues: Ben’s a slow starter when he returns to the lineup after missing time. That means if Pittsburgh stumbles out of the gate to go 1-3 — or god forbid, 0-4 — and Roethlisberger’s almost guaranteed to take a three or four quarters to get reacclimatized, the season will be over before Halloween.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s this: the five instances in the previous six seasons where Ben missed at least a game were all due to injuries. That’s not to say Roethlisberger won’t be rusty when he returns, just that he won’t be trying to stay sharp while simultaneously getting healthy. In fact, the biggest concern might be that he takes a seat on his couch on September 12 and stuff his face until the moment he’s reinstated.

Assuming Big Ben’s able round up some high school kids and stay in Favre shape, what can we expect from him when he gets back? Well, let’s take a look. Here’s how Roethlisberger has performed after missing at least one start:

(FYI re: column headings — S=starts since returning from missing time, Pct=completion percentage, Yds=passing yards, QB_rtg=QB rating, and W and L refer to Pittsburgh’s record after Ben returned. For example, in Ben’s second start after missing time with an injury, his average completion percentage was 61.3%, he threw for 247.5 yards, and in four games the Steelers were 1-3. The “Other” row refers to Ben’s numbers in games not included elsewhere in the table.)

S	Pct	Yds	TD	Int	Sck	QB_rtg	W	L
1	63.9	193.8	1.3	1.8	2.3	75.2	2	3
2	61.3	247.5	1.8	1.8	3.3	83.1	1	3
3	58.1	294.7	1.3	1.0	2.7	87.2	2	1
4	59.1	204.0	0.5	0.5	4.0	87.1	2	0
5	65.4	222.0	1.3	0.7	3.3	102.4	2	1
6	64.0	186.5	1.0	1.0	1.0	94.0	2	0
7	73.2	223.0	3.0	0.0	2.0	148.0	1	1
8	63.0	249.0	1.5	2.5	3.5	78.5	1	1
9	71.4	354.0	1.5	1.5	3.0	101.1	1	1
10-17	54.1	206.3	1.2	1.2	2.7	77.3	7	2
other	64.7	218.5	1.5	0.8	2.7	83.9	46	16

Turns out — and this shouldn’t be a surprise — statistically, Ben’s quarterback rating is significantly worse in the first game back after missing at least one start. But after that, he quickly returns to playing like one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.

Unlike previous missed starts, though, this time is different. Ben’s on the sidelines for reasons wholly unrelated to injuries (although you could make the case that head-butting the pavement had a lasting effect on his ability to make rational decisions, particularly when in a public bathroom with drunk 20-year-olds). So perhaps the bounce-back period won’t be one game, but something much less than that. Also helping: assuming Ben’s out for four games, he will have two weeks — the Week 5 bye and and the subsequent practices leading up to the Week 6 game — to get back in the flow of things. And the Week 6 opponent? The Cleveland Browns.

So, yes, there are plenty of questions about the quarterback position for the immediate future. But if some combination of Byron, Dennis and Chaz can keep the duct tape on the offense in September, the Steelers — as Peter King boldly predicts in SI (thanks, Eddie Mush!) — are Super Bowl contenders. (Okay, I’m not willing to go that far, but if Pittsburgh can squeak out a 2-2 start, then I’m riding shotgun on the playoff bandwagon.)

*******

For shiggles, I took a look at the five times in Big Ben’s career when he returned to the lineup after missing at least one start due to injury*. Just so you know: most of the scribblins’ are all drawn mostly from memory, although I admit to looking up specific dates and the random stat. As much as you can, enjoy:

1. Divisional Championship: Jets vs. Steelers, Jan. 2005, W 20-17. I think T-Fizzle was responsible for Ben’s Week 16 rib injury, and I’m pretty sure it was a late hit. (Shocking, I know.) It was one of the few bright spots for the Ravens, who got smoked 20-7. It was Plaxico’s first game back from a sore hammy, and he hauled in a touchdown pass less than three minutes into the game as Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter watched on helplessly. (That got to be a regular occurrence whenever Plax played Baltimore. Things were a lot simpler before he went to New York and ended up in the clink.)

Anyway, Roethlisberger missed a meaningless Week 17 get-together in Buffalo while — again, going on memory (it’s amazing what I recall from that ’04 season) — Fast Willie gave us our first glimpse of what he was capable of, James Harrison scored a touchdown, and Brian St. Pierre actually got a regular-season snap.

The Steelers had homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and with the first-round bye, Big Ben had a three-week break between starts. Maybe that had something to do with his awful efforts against the Jets and the Patriots, though I like to think it had more to do with him running up against the silent killer — the Rookie Wall (and let’s not forget those toes that may or may not have been broken, depending on whether Ben or Bill Cowher were telling the story.

2. Week 7: Steelers vs. Bengals, Oct. 2005, W 27-13. Before I get to the Cincy game, an examination of the game Ben missed. Feel free to skip the parentheticals if you don’t care to relive the magic that was Tommy Maddux:

(I distinctly remember the Jags debaclement because my wife and I had moved from Pittsburgh to DC two years before and we were back in town to take in her first ever game at Heinz Field. So we were front and center for the beginning of the end of the Tommy Maddux era that culminated with ruffians trashing his lawn, Can’t Buy Me Love-style.

The only reason Tommy Gun started against the Jags was because Big Ben nearly lost his knee during a fourth-quarter drive against the Chargers the week before. This was back when Roethlisberger comebacks weren’t second nature to fans; we were still in the early stages of the relationship, not knowing quite what to expect. So when Luis Castillo barrel-rolled into Ben’s left leg, there were a lot of “holy shit, he’s done for the year” gasps heard in living rooms around the country. But Ben has proven to be an unbelievably fast healer and he only needed a week off before returning to the starting lineup. (As it turns out, it was temporary. See below.)

It’s just too bad Cowher went with Maddux over Charlie Batch because the Jags game was a comedy of errors staring No. 8. that culminated in a fitting overtime turnover: a Touchdown Tommy pick-six to Rashean Mathis. Ball game.)

As for the Bengals, I recall Fast Willie running wild and Dan Kreider even hauling in a touchdown pass. (Looking at the stats, FWP and the Bus combined for 187 yards on 31 carries, and Ben attempted just 13 passes, completing nine, for 93 yards, two TDs and one pick.) The rest involved good defense and a what-used-to-be-common-but-not-so-much-recently well-timed Cincinnati meltdown.

3. Week 12: Steelers vs. Colts, Nov. 2005, L 26-7. This was a Monday night contest and if you ask a million Steelers fans their lasting memory from the game, a million Steelers fans will tell you it was this. Ben missed three games because of knee surgery and he looked a step slow all night against the Colts. To be fair, so did the 10 other guys on offense. It’s funny to think that a team can so thoroughly get it’s ass handed to them and come back to the same stadium two months later and turn the tables. The power of Troy’s hair compels you…

4. Week 2: Steelers vs. Jaguars, Sept. 2006, L 9-0. Chaz Batch, Heath Miller and Joey Porter did much of the heavy lifting in the Week 1 win over the Dolphins. In retrospect, Batch probably could have played another three or four games to give Ben time to recover from getting run over in June and an appendectomy in August. Instead, Roethlisberger was back on the field by Week 2, looking about like you’d expect. Which is to say: not good. Not good at all. Pittsburgh lost 9-0 and in an uninspiring effort.

But the worst was yet to come: the following week, Ricardo Colclough and Bill Cowher conspired to lose the Bengals game. And then there were the losses to the Vick-led Falcons (Ben got knocked out, Chaz played well, but a costly Nate Washington penalty sealed the Steelers’ fate; upside: a one-shoed Hines Ward outran the self-proclaimed fastest dude in football, DeAngelo Hall, all the way to the end zone), the Broncos (one of Ike’s worst games ever), the Ravens (the one where Bart Scott actually ran through Ben), and Roethlisberger’s four-pick extravaganza against the Raiders.

Pittsburgh did finish the season 6-2, including overtime Ben-to-Santonio hookup against the Bengals that kept Cincy out of the playoffs.

5. Week 13: Raiders vs. Steelers, Dec. 2009, L 27-24. This loss was exponentially more painful than the one from 2006. Big Ben missed the previous start against the Ravens (you know, the game that got us all excited this summer about Dixon’s potential) after suffering a concussion against the Chiefs two weeks before. (Seriously, how the hell did Pittsburgh lose five in a row after a 6-2 start, and let the Browns, Chiefs AND Raiders all beat them?)

Ben didn’t play poorly — he was 18 of 24 for 278 yards, two touchdowns and an interception — but the defense, as it had done for most of ’09, was a no-show. Joe Burnett dropping an EASY interception coupled with Bruce Gradkowski playing out of his mind resulted in a last-second Raiders touchdown, and a 27-24 final score. I LOVE reliving those memories.

Oh, god. I have been so preoccupied with the first four games of the season that I haven’t looked at the rest of the schedule. Guess who’s coming to town on Nov. 21? You got it: the Oakland Raiders.

* Note: Big Ben also sat out against the Ravens in a meaningless Week 17 game to end the 2007 regular season, but he wasn’t injured. The Steelers promptly lost to the Jags in the wild card round a few days later. I’m blaming that on Arians and Tomlin, the brains behind that 3rd-and-6 Big Ben sneak that had less chance of working than Dixon’s 4th-and-1 naked bootleg against the Broncos last Sunday.

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