Unsettled Steelers preseason lurching to a close

Ben Roethlisberger may start his third consecutive preseason

game Thursday for the Steelers, though he can’t be the starter when

the season begins.

Byron Leftwich may get relegated to playing with the backups for

the second game in a row, yet he’s almost certain to be the opening

day quarterback.

Charlie Batch clearly believes he’s the most qualified to play

while Roethlisberger is suspended, yet there is no guarantee he

will be on the team next week.

The Steelers’ unsettled preseason lurches to a conclusion

Thursday night against Carolina, with the starters not expected to

play much and coach Mike Tomlin still not saying who will start

Sept. 12 against Atlanta. The Steelers traded for Leftwich in April

to steer them through Roethlisberger’s suspension, yet Tomlin is

refusing to officially name him the starter.

Some Steelers are growing impatient with the lack of a formal

declaration, including their most tenured offensive player.

”Right now, Ben’s our quarterback, but he’s not going to be

around,” wide receiver Hines Ward said Tuesday. ”That’s about all

we know. Nobody knows who the starter is, the backup or even

(who’s) making the team. Hopefully by Monday, we’ll have a starting

quarterback.”

Although the choice seems obvious – Dennis Dixon’s

two-interception performance Sunday against Denver suggested he’s

not ready to start – Ward said it would put the players’ minds at

ease to know.

”It’s tough; there’s no question it’s tough,” Ward said.

”It’s the first time in my 13 years here we haven’t had a

legitimate starter named, especially by the fourth (preseason)

game. We’re still going at it.”

In reality, the Steelers experienced similar confusion 10 years

ago, when coach Bill Cowher didn’t name Kent Graham as the starter

until after the fifth and final preseason game. Graham lasted for

only three games, and three losses, before Kordell Stewart took

over. The Steelers went 9-4 after that, but still missed the

playoffs.

The Steelers reacquired Leftwich with the obvious intent of

avoiding a bad start; he was the backup when they won the Super

Bowl two seasons ago, and he knows their playbook and personnel.

But he’s not seeing many of those players in the preseason.

Leftwich started Aug. 14 against Detroit and played into the

second quarter. A week later, Roethlisberger started against the

Giants, which meant Leftwich got minimal work with the regulars. In

Denver, Leftwich followed both Roethlisberger and Dixon, which

meant he was on the field with second-line players, rookies and

free agents. Not surprisingly, he didn’t complete any of his four

passes.

It seemed to be a curious way to get a quarterback ready to

start a season, but Leftwich didn’t complain.

”I don’t think anybody understood how the situation would be

handled (during camp),” Leftwich said. ”It’s so unique, there was

nothing we could go off, to follow somebody in the past, because it

hasn’t really happened this way before. I think we all handled it

well, and we all have been handling it well.”

If Roethlisberger starts against Carolina – he wants to take

some snaps in the no-huddle offense – Leftwich might play with the

backups again since the starters rarely play more than a few series

in the final preseason game.

It will Roethlisberger’s last work with the Steelers until his

suspension ends in October; he drew a six-game suspension in April,

but commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to trim it to four games

after the two meet Friday in New York.

The quarterback who’s been left out is Batch, a former Lions

starter and the Steelers’ primary backup since 2002. Batch took

nearly no snaps with the starters during camp, and his only

preseason work has been mopping up late in games.

Batch has looked sharper than any quarterback except for

Roethlisberger during his brief playing time, but he understands

the Steelers won’t keep four quarterbacks once Roethlisberger is

cleared to play.

Batch isn’t expected to have trouble landing a backup job

somewhere should the Steelers let him go.

”All I know is there weren’t many reps to go around, and I was

the one who was shorted,” Batch said. ”Realistically, there

weren’t many reps to go around. Yeah, it bothered you. … If you

don’t get any reps, that’s not good, the chances of making the team

are very slim.”