PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger gingerly made his way out of the Pittsburgh Steelers facility on Monday, his left leg immobilized under a brace and his attitude upbeat.
The leader of one of the NFL’s most dynamic offenses is expected back at some point in 2015 after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the third quarter of Sunday’s 12-6 win over St Louis.
What the rest of the season looks like whenever Roethlisberger returns will rely heavily on how much is left in Michael Vick’s 35-year-old arm (and legs).
Coach Mike Tomlin thinks Vick has plenty left.
Vick will start for the Steelers (2-1) on Thursday night when they host Baltimore (0-3), a job Vick will hold indefinitely while Roethlisberger is out. Tomlin declined to put a timetable on when Roethlisberger will take the field next other than to say it will be “a number of weeks.”
Roethlisberger fell awkwardly while getting tackled by St. Louis safety Mark Barron, the quarterback’s left leg twisting gruesomely as he fell to the turf. An MRI revealed no major structural damage though Roethlisberger will miss multiple starts due to injury for only the second time in his 12-year career.
Enter Vick, a four-time Pro Bowler signed in August who quickly earned the backup job. He completed 5 of 6 passes for 38 yards after Roethlisberger’s exit, hardly the gamebreaking stuff of Vick’s prime. Then again, he wasn’t asked to do much other than avoid mistakes while the defense preserved a second-half lead.
The challenge will change considerably at home against a winless rival, though Tomlin is hardly worried about Vick’s ability to get prepared in the 100 hours in between games.
“This isn’t his first rodeo,” Tomlin said.
Maybe, but it will mark just Vick’s fourth start in the last two years. His only victory in that span? A 20-13 upset of the Steelers last November while playing for the New York Jets. Vick will have considerably more weapons at his disposal in Pittsburgh with running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Just don’t expect Vick to be given as much latitude as Roethlisberger, who has spent the last three-plus seasons working with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Vick, by contrast, has been in town less than five weeks.
“We’re going to work in his comfort zone and bring the game to him and put us in position to win football games,” Tomlin said.
A half decade removed from his last truly special season — when he won the Comeback Player of the Year in 2010 while with Philadelphia — Vick is less gamechanger and more game manager. If Vick’s job is to simply help Pittsburgh’s two stars do theirs, that’s fine by him.
“I won’t put it all on my shoulders,” Vick said. “I’ll take sole responsibility of everything that happens, but I’m just going to prepare myself and get myself in the position to help this football team.”
The patented “Vick flick” is still there. Vick’s first pass during the preseason was a 63-yard rainbow to Martavis Bryant. There were no fireworks in St. Louis, though he did hit Bell with a pretty back shoulder throw that helped Pittsburgh flip the field.
While Vick’s arrival was met with a small din of protest — the lingering residue of Vick’s time in federal prison stemming from his role in a dogfighting ring — he quickly ingratiated himself in one of the league’s more stable locker rooms. His stall is right next to fellow backup Landry Jones and Vick has done his best to absorb whatever has been thrown his way.
“He’s a leader and he’s been doing it for a long time,” Brown said. “It’s not only about him. We’ve got to be able to help him, catching passes, got to be able to run the ball, protect the ball and help him out.”