PITTSBURGH – Mike Tomlin probably wishes his quarterback decision had been this easy all season.
Charlie Batch, buried so deep on the Steelers' depth chart that he barely practiced during training camp, will start Sunday's AFC North game against Baltimore. Batch hasn't started successive games since midway through 2005, when Ben Roethlisberger had a right knee injury.
Batch started Sunday at Tampa Bay only because Dennis Dixon had left knee surgery last week and Byron Leftwich was recovering from a left knee injury, yet he completed 12 of 17 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns — his first scoring passes since 2007.
Leftwich, expected to start throughout Roethlisberger's four-game suspension, is healthy, but Tomlin said Tuesday that Batch earned the right to remain in the lineup.
He did it through his play — he's 4-1 as a fill-in starter since joining the Steelers in 2002 — and through his perseverance.
Batch played only one game the previous two seasons due to injuries, and his perceived fragility was partly why Tomlin started the inexperienced Dixon in the first two games. Batch declined to criticize the decision, nor did he complain when it seemed likely the Steelers (3-0) would cut him before Leftwich was hurt in the final preseason game Sept. 2.
"Guys have a great deal of confidence in him," Tomlin said. "He's a man who's taken advantage of an opportunity, and you've got to be happy for him. It's an awesome lesson learned for our young players, one I hope they're taking heed to. This league is about perseverance, this profession is about perseverance and taking advantage of opportunities when they're given. He's given them a shining, clear-cut example of that at this juncture."
Tomlin isn't second-guessing his decision to start Dixon during tight victories over Atlanta (15-9) and Tennessee (19-11), even though Batch threw for Pittsburgh's first three TD passes of the season. Batch also looked more polished and comfortable than Dixon. Dixon will be out for up to six weeks, but the Steelers don't plan to put him on the injured reserve list.
Roethlisberger is eligible to return to practice next week, when the Steelers have a bye. He will start Oct. 17 against Cleveland.
Tomlin won't dispute that his players' determination to prove their season wouldn't be derailed by Roethlisberger's four-game suspension has played into their 3-0 start. The Steelers can go 4-0 for the first time since 1979 by beating the Ravens (2-1), who have lost nine of their last 10 at Heinz Field.
"I just acknowledge we're dealing with a situation here and we acknowledge the fact that some of this situation is our doing," Tomlin said. "We've got to fight our way out of it. I think that's more the mentality of our team than anything else."
While the Steelers' unbeaten record is largely the result of a defense that hasn't allowed a touchdown in the first three quarters, Baltimore's defense is No. 1 overall. Pittsburgh is No. 6, dragged down partly by a No. 17 ranking against the pass.
The Ravens are No. 1 against the pass, but only 23rd against the run after allowing Cleveland's Peyton Hillis to run for 144 yards during Baltimore's 24-17 victory on Sunday.
Tomlin saw that statistic and went, "Uh, oh."
"The fact Cleveland had some success doesn't bode well for us. I'd felt better if Peyton Hillis had run for 40 as opposed to 140 because I know the type of men that play for that (Baltimore) team," Tomlin said. "Great defenses like the Baltimore Ravens usually bounce back quickly."
The status of backup nose tackle Chris Hoke (sprained knee) and right guard Trai Essex (ankle) will be determined later in the week. Essex was replaced against Tampa Bay by Doug Legursky, who made his first NFL start.