Wow! What a game. If you had asked me at halftime if we'd all be feeling this ecstatic after the game, OR, if you had asked me if we had an unexpected twist in our season to suddenly mull over, I would not have believed you. To some of my initial thoughts about Byron Leftwich's performance, of which I have many. We'll get to the rest of the game, including the surprise lift our special teams gave us a bit later.
* Did you know Byron Leftwich was from DC? Give that man credit for being ready to play in front of family and friends on Monday Night Football. He certainly wasted no time making his impact on the game. After three straight running plays to start the second half, Leftiwch calmly avoided pressure in the pocket with a quick side step to his left. He then quickly unloaded on a perfectly thrown deep ball to Nate Washington for a 50 yard gain. Three plays later, Leftwich delivered another strike to Mewelde Moore on 3rd and 7 from the 8 yard line. TOUGH to find windows in that part of the field, and Leftwich did just that, trusting his sure-handed 3rd down back to make a play in traffic, which he did.
See though, those kinds of throws require a certain level of trust in what's going on around you. On the first play for example, there's no way Leftiwch got a clear look at both the pass rush and the developments down the field. He was disciplined with his eyes, felt the pressure, made one quick lateral step and flung it. Money.
You can sense that trust and confidence in the pocket is gone for the moment from Ben. There is no doubt in my mind its a temporary thing, but let's face it, it's gone for the moment. When a QB as talented as Ben is missing easy slants, repeatedly leading Hines Ward into traffic, failing to find Mewelde Moore once in the passing game the past two weeks (which Leftiwch was able to do on I believe on 3 occasions in just one half), taking sacks that don't need to be taken, something's not quite right. It's not all his fault, but the cumulative effect of some shoddy protection at times, poor play calling at times, an ailing body, etc. all add up and effect even franchise QBs. You have to hand it to him for continuing to suit up and absorb all the contact and physical punishment that he has this year and last. For the vast majority of his performances, he's found a way to somehow play through whatever pain he's dealing with to play at a very high level. But tonight (and I'm not sure which play perhaps put him out of the game) he hit a wall and he had to sit. Hell, he couldn't even lift his shoulders in celebration during the second half from the sidelines. Somewhat ironically, Ben's best throw of the night was his last, a decisive strike to Hines Ward in the red zone that led to a TD just one play later.
That's Ben. Competing and battling to the very end.
* More below on Leftwich, but anybody else notice that the case of the 'drops' that has mildly plagued our WRs at various times this year, including in the first half, disappeared in the second half? I think part of that is just the general vibe that a QB exudes with his reads and throws. Ben probably could benefit from at least a half on the bench healing up, if not one more game. We'll see what the medical report says. But with Leftwich delivering the ball on time, our WRs suddenly made every catch in sight, including a number of quite tough catches on big plays. Just a thought.
* Lest somebody feel the need to remind me that we still only finished the evening with just 224 yards of offense while giving up 4 more sacks, no need. I was sufficiently frustrated heading into intermission. But when we came out in the second half, we started with three straight runs to pick up a first down. Those of us who joined in the (most lively on record here at BTSC) open thread all clamored for a heavy dose of the running game to start the second half. We did just that, even managing to convert on a crucial (and ugly) plunge from Najeh Davenport. Then on first down, when the Skins were likely looking run again, we hit them deep on the aforementioned perfectly thrown pass by Leftwich. Bruce Arians again had his low moments tonight, but well done on the initial script out of the locker room to start the second half. And of course, perhaps Arians deserves a little bit of a break for his culpability in the offenses' struggles lately. Not entirely that's for sure, but we got a taste of what we can do when we had a healthy and lively arm in there who also hasn't been tormented by literally dozens of games where he got pummeled. Leftwich was a bit unconscious out there and that's what we needed.
I don't have the full breakdowns of 3rd down % by half, but I did look up how we started the second half before building a three possession lead. 5/6 on 3rd downs to start the second half. Perhaps the most impressive conversion was the 3rd and 15 deep out to Holmes on our 3rd series of the half. We all knew we'd have a clunker after that first electric series didn't we? Arians? Two series in a row? Wasn't happening but on our following possession Leftwich again delivered on a type of throw that a QB with an ailing shoulder simply can't make. Or rather, likely won't make, and in Ben's case lately, might not even attempt to make, instead opting to hold on to the ball for something easier in the middle of the field. Well, we know how that's been working lately.
One more point about that play. It was the prototypical Leftwich delivery. The huge windup. Amazing velocity and trajectory. Of course, Kornheiser used the moment to talk about baseball (??) in some incomprehensible line of reasoning. Anyway, the throw was classic Leftwich, but I want to harken back to two different throws that I found impressive and in my opinion, more important to our chances moving foward if he's in fact forced to play a few more games.
The first, we've already discussed, which is that deep bomb to Nate. Was Leftwich's delivery long and pronounced there? Absolutely not. The opposite in fact. He just kinda flinged it out there quickly. Very beautiful. In fact, it's the type of throw that good NFL QBs have to be able to make. You can't wind up there. Just can't. Not with that much pressure bearing down on you in this league. So you have to be able to make those 25-50 yard throws without a full windup and without your feet necessarily being fully set either. Leftwich proved that he could do more than just throw missles when he had a comfy pocket and that's why he had some success tonight. The diversity of his deliverys.
The other throw was the dump down to Mewelde Moore in traffic on the first play of the 4th quarter from the Skins 47. Leftwich went through his progressions while hanging in the pocket, stepped up then dumped off a little lob ball to Mewelde Moore who had all the daylight in the world ahead of him. Now, you may think thats an elementary pass and in some regards it is. But it requires being fairly comfortalbe amidst considerable pressure, and then the ability to harness all that adrenaline to deftly dump off the ball. I don't think Leftwich deserves a cookie for making the play, don't get me wrong. But it shows he's more than a one-trick pony, at least when he's in the moment and playing up to his potential.
I've seen plenty of Leftwich in recent years and part of me thinks he's been trying a bit too hard since being unseated in Jacksonville. Trying too hard to prove he still has a huge arm and can make all the throws. Trying to hard to prove people wrong. That 'me against the world' mantra is great, but where that truly starts and ends is in preparation, and for Leftwich, who has found himself NOT working with team's first team offenses for the most part the last couple of years, it's hard to put in the time during practice. The temptation then, is to try to force things and prove the doubters wrong all at once. Not a good formula for success in this league. On the field, successful QBs need to take what's given to them, avoid temptations to try to be the hero, and simply find ways to make plays, no matter how it looks. Too often in the past I thought Leftwich's mind wandered out there. Not tonight.
* I'll finish with this one quote from Leftwich that I found somewhat interesting.
“I truly don’t know the offense yet,” said Leftwich, who signed with the Steelers in August. “I just got here late in the preseason, so that’s what makes it tough. …
That may not be such a bad thing. Hehe. If you're called upon again Byron, just stay loose and compete. You may just find yourself confused if you overthink what you're being instructed to do out there. For a night though, it was just what we needed, and pending what we hear about Ben's shoulder, we may have plenty to discuss throughout the week regarding whether or not it would be prudent for Leftwich to start next Sunday against Indianapolis while Roethlisberger gets his shoulder healthy for the stretch run.
* Ok, this is too long for now to get into the defense specifically, so that will be next. But WOW!. There will be no late season swoon with this defense. Again they deliver, perhaps with their most impressive showing to date. And there were some new faces involved as well who ran with the big dogs just fine. The Skins finished with just 221 yards, but a big chunk of those were in junk time. 7 sacks! That's not a typo! And oh yeah, 2 INTs of Jason Campbell, who had gone the first 8 games of the year without throwing any. Much more on the new 2008 version of the Steel Curtain's dominating effort coming soon.