Five Steelers pivotal to filling Roethlisberger gap

Vinnie Iyer
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Monday, May. 3, 2010 - 9:06 p.m. ET
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Months from the 2010 season, the Steelers already are in a hole as they attempt to reclaim the AFC North. Staying in contention in one of the NFL's toughest divisions will be difficult without QB Ben Roethlisberger for four to six games.

Few NFL teams could survive the loss of their franchise quarterback for a significant chunk of the season, but Pittsburgh has a chance. It will require the Steelers to again lean more on their defense and running game.

The Steelers have evolved into more of a passing team under coordinator Bruce Arians, so don't expect them to just suddenly implant a "caretaker" under center. Still, they have a knack for adapting. A look at five Steelers who play essential roles in keeping the team afloat during Roethlisberger's suspension:

1. Byron Leftwich, QB

Coach Mike Tomlin hasn't decided who will start in Roethlisberger's place, but Leftwich did get all the first-team reps in the weekend minicamp. Tomlin said he gave Leftwich the extra work to help him get reacquainted with the offense after being reacquired just two weeks ago.

The QB battle figures to be a three-man race into training camp.

Leftwich is technically the newcomer, but his 2008 experience with the Steelers could give him the edge. Charlie Batch has been burned by injuries the past two years, and third-year man Dennis Dixon has seen extensive playing time in only one NFL game, last season's Week 9 overtime loss at Baltimore.

In addition, Leftwich's arm, size and passing skills fit more with Arians' scheme. Leftwich (6-5, 250) is only 9 pounds bigger than Roethlisberger. An NFL team's pro personnel director said Roethlisberger and Leftwich have similar styles but that Leftwich "isn't nearly as mobile."

2. Heath Miller, TE

He has had a consistent, durable and solid five-year career and is coming off his first Pro Bowl. Miller is an exceptional run blocker and a surehanded receiver, doing his job without much flair.

Miller's role is critical, whether the Steelers pound the ball more or make him a busier intermediate target to compensate the team's other big offensive loss, wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

Former NFL coach and ESPN analyst Mike Ditka, the first tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, appreciates Miller's versatility from game to game.

"(Miller) is just capable of doing whatever they need," Ditka said. "He's the epitome of a team player."

3. Maurkice Pouncey, RG

The Steelers often draft for the future in the first round but smartly went after an instant upgrade for their interior line last month. The line has been maligned the past three years; Roethlisberger was sacked a career-high 50 times last season and the rushing attack has been middle-of-the-pack. Pouncey, a center in college, is expected to start at right guard as a rookie.

Roethlisberger's athleticism often bailed him out, but the Steelers' line must be much steadier in 2010, especially if the less mobile Leftwich is the starter. Pouncey's pop will be welcome in mauling inside pass rushers.

"He's a finisher," Tomlin told reporters. "He's a physical football player."

4. Jonathan Dwyer, RB

Rashard Mendenhall moves into the feature back role this season with the release of Willie Parker. For Pittsburgh to run at its highest level, however, it needs a complementary second-half hammer to pound the ball between the tackles, a role Parker couldn't fill and current backup Mewelde Moore can't, either.

Enter Dwyer, a power-running fullback at Georgia Tech. Forget the fact he was only a sixth-round pick—he has the physical, aggressive style and bowling-ball frame to be the immediate answer.

"Not often do you find 230-pound halfbacks with his ability with the ball in his hands," Steelers running back coach Kirby Wilson said.

The past couple of seasons, to win close games, the Steelers relied mostly on Roethlisberger to make smart decisions and find Holmes and Hines Ward in critical situations.

By drafting Pouncey and Dwyer, the Steelers can reestablish their physical identity to close out opponents in the fourth quarter. That would make the team stronger and more balanced for Roethlisberger's return.

5. Troy Polamalu, S

With their most important offensive player, Roethlisberger, missing the first month or so of the season, the Steelers must have their best defender healthy from the start. Last season, Polamalu's injury woes began in Week 1, when he sprained the MCL in his left knee, and ended up costing him 11 games.
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And the defense struggled in his absence. Pittsburgh was 26th in the league with 22 takeaways. In 2008, when Polamalu didn't a miss a game, the Steelers had 20 interceptions.

There's no doubt the Steelers have the offensive scheme and talent to move the ball without Roethlisberger, but they need more short fields and easier scoring opportunities to match the production they get with him at QB.