Byron Leftwich's strained left knee ligament could sideline him for most or all of the first month of the season, leaving the Steelers with only two healthy quarterbacks -- Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch -- for their Sept. 12 opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
Given how secretive Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was in refusing to announce a starter for any preseason game, it isn't certain when he'll disclose his starting quarterback. The Steelers don't practice again until Monday.
After the Steelers learned the nature of Leftwich's injury, Dixon was taken out of Thursday night's preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers after throwing one pass for a touchdown -- a strong indication he was being protected for the opener. Batch played the final 2½ quarters, throwing just four passes.
After working with four experienced quarterbacks during training camp, an awkward situation that resulted in Batch seeing almost no work with the starters, the Steelers suddenly are down to two.
"Of course, I'll be excited if it does come my way," said Dixon, the third-year quarterback who saw more preseason playing time with the starters than any quarterback except Roethlisberger. "At the same time, I'm even keel. I never get too high or never get too low."
An MRI exam performed Friday on Leftwich apparently didn't reveal a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which could have sidelined him for the season. A strained medial collateral ligament is less serious, but it still commonly takes weeks to heal. The Steelers didn't disclose any projected timetable Friday.
This injury couldn't have occurred at a worse time for the Steelers, who reacquired Leftwich from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April with the intent of starting him while Roethlisberger served his suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy. That punishment was reduced to four games by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Friday, meaning Roethlisberger can return for the Oct. 17 home game against the Cleveland Browns.
Now the Steelers must find a way to remain competitive until Roethlisberger returns.
"I think we're in good hands," Batch said. "You had three solid guys who could step in when needed, and now we're down to two."
Batch, a Steelers backup since 2002, owns an extensive knowledge of the playbook and often huddles with Roethlisberger between series to review coverages. Batch also played well while Roethlisberger was injured in 2005 and 2006, going 3-0 as a starter.
However, Batch has thrown just two passes since the final game of the 2007 season. He missed the 2008 season with a broken collarbone that occurred in the first preseason game, then went down with a wrist injury shortly after entering the only game he played last season.
Dixon has started one NFL game, throwing for a touchdown and running for another during a 20-17 overtime loss at Baltimore last season. The former University of Oregon star's running ability gives Pittsburgh's offense an extra dimension, but Tomlin said Dixon still must learn when to stay with a play and when to take off running.
If Dixon starts, wide receiver Hines Ward predicts the Steelers will take a low-risk approach like they did when Roethlisberger became a starter as a rookie in 2004. Then, Pittsburgh leaned on its running game, defense and special teams while asking Roethlisberger to throw only enough to balance the offense.
Roethlisberger said there's no reason why the Steelers can't be as successful with Dixon as their starter as they were when he was forced to play after Tommy Maddox was injured in 2004. After the opener against Atlanta, the Steelers play at Tennessee on Sept. 19 and Tampa Bay on Sept. 26 before meeting Baltimore at home on Oct. 3.
"It's going to be different for him whether it's on the road, at home, he's got nerves, jitters, he's going against a great nose tackle or a tough defense in Baltimore," Roethlisberger said of Dixon. "It's going to be a challenge for him if he's indeed the starter, but I think he'll be up for it if his number is called."
The Steelers cut 10 players Friday and must make an additional 11 cuts Saturday to reach the 53-man roster limit.
Tight end Sean McHugh, who missed last season with a knee injury, was the most prominent player cut. Also let go were tight end Eugene Bright, guard Dorian Brooks, offensive tackle Kyle Jolly, wide receiver Brandon London, defensive tackle Scott Paxson, long snapper Matt Stewart, safety Justin Thornton, running back Justin Vincent and linebacker Renauld Williams.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press