PITTSBURGH - Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will miss Sunday night's game at Baltimore because of a concussion, an unforeseen development that forces the inexperienced Dennis Dixon to start one of the Super Bowl champions' biggest games this season.
Dixon, the former Oregon star, has spent most of the season as the No. 3 quarterback running the Steelers' scout team during practice. He has thrown only one NFL pass in two seasons, but must play because both Roethlisberger and backup Charlie Batch were hurt during a 27-24 overtime loss to Kansas City last week.
Roethlisberger practised all week despite sustaining his fourth concussion since 2006. On Thursday, during his only interview of the week, he said he had been cleared to play, joking he passed "thousands of tests."
Roethlisberger, however, experienced headaches resulting from the concussion -- his knee struck the knee of Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson as he leaned headfirst during a running play in overtime -- and he began debating the wisdom of playing after consulting with the team's medical staff.
The Steelers decided Saturday that Roethlisberger will play only in an emergency. He will be the No. 3 quarterback, with former Pitt starter Tyler Palko -- who was signed only Thursday and doesn't know the offence -- as Dixon's backup.
FoxSports.com first reported that Roethlisberger would not play.
The Steelers (6-4), losers of their last two and a game behind Cincinnati (7-3) in the AFC North, were so convinced Roethlisberger would play, they did not sign an experienced quarterback even after Batch broke his left wrist a few plays after replacing Roethlisberger on Sunday. Their game plan for the Ravens (5-5) also was built around Roethlisberger playing.
Coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday the team expected Roethlisberger to play, and there were no signs Wednesday or Thursday he wouldn't. Dixon took more snaps than usual in practice Friday -- the first sign Roethlisberger's status might change.
The Steelers likely will rely mostly on running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker and limit the amount of throws Dixon makes. Dixon was an excellent runner in Oregon's spread offence, but the Steelers -- like every NFL team -- don't want their quarterback running consistently because of the risk of injury.
Dixon's only game action came in a mop-up role against Cleveland in the final game of last season, after Roethlisberger also received a concussion. Dixon will be the most inexperienced Steelers quarterback to be thrown into a starting role since rookie Mike Kruczek replaced the injured Terry Bradshaw in 1976. Kruczek went 6-0 as a starter despite not throwing a single touchdown pass, and ended his five-season NFL career in 1980 without throwing a scoring pass.
Roethlisberger's decision to not play comes in the same week the NFL has taken a heightened stance on protecting players from head injuries. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to teams outlining steps the league is taking to reduce head impacts.
Roethlisberger also had two concussions in 2006, one in a motorcycle accident, and the other last season.
"It's part of the nature of the beast of playing this game," Roethlisberger said Thursday. "It's a violent, physical contact sport and there's a chance you're going to get hit. You guys don't talk about the bruises we have all over our bodies. If I showed you a bruise on my shoulder and a bruise on my shin, it wouldn't get talked about as much. It's a violent sport we play."