Can Leftwich and Dixon keep the Steelers afloat until Big Ben returns?

8-14-10:  Ben Roethlisberger  and Byron Leftwich  during the Pittsburgh Steelers vs Detroit Lions game in Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

Merry training camp season, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing the affects that Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension could have on the Steelers’ quarterback position.

After trading Santonio Holmes to the Jets in the offseason, some feel as though the Steelers’ biggest weakness is at receiver. But Hines Ward continues to be the model for production and Mike Wallace is turning heads as a potential deep threat. I also like promising sixth-rounder Antonio Brown and there have been reports that third rounder Emmanuel Sanders could beat out Antwaan Randle El for the No. 3 receiver job by the start of the season.

If I’m the Steelers, receiver isn’t my main concern – quarterback is.

As of this writing, Ben Roethlisberger is still slated to miss the first six games of the season due to a suspension. That number could be reduced to four games, but Roger Goodell has yet to make announce his decision either way.

But even if it’s only four games, the Steelers still have to be concerned about getting off to a slow start with either Byron Lefwich or youngster Dennis Dixon at the helm. They host the Falcons in Week 1 before facing the Titans and Buccaneers in back-to-back road games. They host the Ravens in Week 4, their bye is Week 5 and then they play the Browns at home in Week 6 before going on the road to Miami in Week 7.

While it’s a rather fruitless endeavor to try and predict the success of teams in preseason, it’s probably safe to assume the Falcons, Ravens and Dolphins will be playoff contenders, while the Titans will be improved as well. I’m sure if the Steelers can play .500 ball while Big Ben is out, they’ll take it. But what if Leftwich and/or Dixon put them in a hole early in the season?

Leftwich played very well in five appearances with the Steelers in 2008, but he’s still Byron Leftwich. He was a small disaster in three games with the Bucs last year and equally bad in three outings with the Falcons in 2007 when he fumbled four times and produced a QB rating of 59.5. The same problems that have haunted him over the years (big wind up, slow release, fumblitis, etc.) are still present today and while he’s fine in small doses, he hasn’t been a viable option as a starter in quite some time.

Dixon, on the other hand, is arguably a better option than Leftwich based on the Steelers’ shaky pass protection. He at least can run if he feels pressure and thus far, he’s outperformed Leftwich in preseason.

But he’s also young and inexperienced and therefore, he’s prone to making mistakes. He certainly has the tools to lead Pittsburgh’s offense, but at this point in his career he’s also a player that needs a consistent running game in order to help take some of the pressure off of his shoulders. And can the Steelers get back to running the ball on a consistent basis?

This article will be moot in about a month if the Steelers can hold their own over the first 4-6 games. And given Dixon’s preseason effort to this point and their excellent defense, that’s certainly a possibility.

But given Leftwich’s history, Dixon’s inexperience, the offensive line’s inability to pass protect on a consistent basis and their issues running the ball over the last two years, it’s not out of the question that the Steelers could stumble out of the gates.

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