Dixon, Defense and the Falcons

It’s go time, peeps. And for the first time since 2006, when Big Ben was recovering from an offseason motorcycle accident and an August appendectomy, the Steelers enter the regular season with some questions at quarterback.

I think most of us were plenty confident in Charlie Batch four years ago, partly because we had seen Tommy Maddox wreak havoc the year before, but also because Batch had fared well in a couple post-Tommy starts. Now, though, Chaz is an afterthought. We all figured he’d be released last week, right up till the moment Byron Leftwich suffered a knee injury in the final preseason game. Then there was speculation that Batch would leapfrog Dennis Dixon on the depth chart and he would be under center Sunday against the Falcons. Didn’t happen.

So Atlanta comes to Heinz Field and Dixon will be the Steelers quarterback. I asked for it and now I’m getting it. And you know what? I’m excited. Not just because football is back, but because Dixon’s still a mystery; we got a glimpse of what he could do against the Ravens last season, but I’d like to think he’s matured a lot since then.

But does Dennis give Pittsburgh the best chance to win? No idea. In fact, I could make an argument that steady-as-she-goes Batch is a safer choice. But I’m all for giving Dixon the reins and seeing what happens. Minimizing turnovers will obviously play a big part in the outcome, but here are some other thing that have to happen if the Steelers are going to start the year 1-0:

* Run the ball. Going on nothing more than JJ’s o-line breakdowns and a gut feeling, I think this group of five fat guys has a chance to be … well, something more than just mediocre. In the past, the Steelers’ o-line aspired for mediocrity. And while the unit may always struggle to protect Big Ben, that’s as much a function of Roethlisberger’s style as their abilities. In terms of run-blocking, though, there’s no reason that Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman (note to Bruce Arians: Don’t be afraid to give Redman the ball. Thanks.) can’t wrack up gaudy numbers behind Starks, Kemoeatu and Pouncey. And having Dixon back there makes the run attack that much more formidable. There could be problems if defenses have eight or nine guys around the line of scrimmage, which brings me to my next point…

* Use Heath Miller. A lot. Gretz mentioned this and it seems like a no-brainer. But Bruce Arians, despite all his success in Pittsburgh, has a knack for complicating the uncomplicated. So instead of, say, a double-reverse on 3rd and 1, how about a quick pass to Miller for the first down? In fact, whenever Miller’s not helping protect the quarterback, make him Dixon’s safety valve. It makes too much sense not to happen. Same goes for Hines, who’s basically a tight end at this point in the proceedings, as well as Mendenhall or Mewelde coming out of the backfield. On a related note…

* Manage the downfield passing game. I heard somebody say that with Dixon (or Chaz) under center it means that Mike Wallace, Deep Threat is neutralized because neither QB has the arm to hit Wallace downfield. I don’t buy it since Ben’s not exactly known for throwing the ball out of the stadium, either. The bigger issue is making sure that Dixon doesn’t think he has to throw a couple 60-yarders a game to Wallace just because that’s what happened last year. Wallace doesn’t have any problems getting open 15-20 yards down the field, and even showed a little wiggle-after-the-catch during the preseason. No reason to force the 9-route down everybody’s throat just to say, “See, we can still do it!”

* Defense. Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu are back and healthy and I can only pray that’s the case for the next 21 weeks. Their absences had everything to do with the Steelers’ defensive collapse last year, and in my mind Troy is the most important person on this team. After watching him in four preseason games, I do wonder if he’s completely confident in his knee. He’s looked tentative at times, but maybe that’s just me reading too much into it. There’s also the 2010 Juan Timmons Coming Out Party, which could make the eventual transition to life without Potsie a lot easier. And while I’ve been down on William Gay for months now, hopefully he’ll find his confidence at nickel back and B-Mac will find his 2008 form. (Yes, I realize he wasn’t exactly killing it during his last stint in Pittsburgh, but after what the secondary subjected me to last year, I’ll take it.)

* Special Teams. Honestly, I have such low expectations for this bunch that as long as they keep the opposing return teams on their side of midfield I’ll consider it a success. (And please, please, please don’t blame Skippy.) Clearly, I’d like a little more than that, but, look, this group gave up four touchdown returns in 2009.

Whatever, it’s nothing a little arm-waving and cliches can’t fix. To quote every high school football coach ever: “I’m not asking for much, just all ya got.”

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  • steeler junky

    I am exited Too! I am looking forward to getting the answers from quite a few questions on Sunday.
    1 – How well will Dixon handle his big chance?
    2- How much will the OL be improved by the Coach Kugler effect?
    3- As you mentioned special teams play?
    4 – Will the Steelers defense be better in 4th quarters?
    5 – How Arians calls the game?
    6 – Will Arians truly use the split backfield to it’s best? Because the pony backfield as Arians calls it can cause defenses to hesitate a fraction of a second, because so many different plays can be called off of that formation. and on and on? etc. etc.

  • FW

    My keys to the game:
    Turnovers. If I see Mendy running with his arm out like a flapping turkey wing, I’ll have the remote ready to throw at the wall. DD needs to make sure he avoids the bad decisions that can kill the game, like 2H v. Baltimore and RZ v. Denver in the pre; it’s less about placement and more about timing. Here’s hoping the past month has gotten his head to speed.
    Attacking the QB. Harrison v. Sam Baker and Woodley v. Tyson Clabo. Ryan’s got a fast release, but I’ll feel better about our secondary if we can rattle his cage a bit. Aaron Smith may not get the sacks that the OLBs do, but it will be nice seeing him bulling his man (Dahl) back into the QB’s passing lanes.
    STs. Thank God for bourbon. Competence would be a major stride forward.
    Rookie yips. We’re going to be relying on rookies in two crucial areas: Pouncey in the center of our OL, and Antonio Brown returning kicks. I’m not too worried about Pouncey, so long as he plays as well as we know he can, but rookie returners make me sweat. I didn’t like letting Logan go, nothing against Brown. Here’s to hoping I don’t miss Logan too much.
    The long ball. I understand that Wallace can outrun most of our QBs’ throws, but I still think we need to test every team we face at least a couple of times, to help clear out the safeties and open up that intermediate passing game. And if DD can drop it in to 17, there’s a real nice chance he’s going for 6.
    RZ and cutesy BS. Our inability to translate success between the 20s into anything more than FGs is an annual frustration. Top that off with the OC getting cutesy rather than utilizing smart situational ball, and I need a box of remotes, ready to throw.


    Perhaps you make this an implicit point, but the running game needs to be more efficient, not more numerous, I do not think that starting the game pounding the rock 20 times just to “establish” the running game is a sound strategy…remember that this is a passing league and we need an effective game from both the Air Attack (being, of course, Heath Miller a key match to explode) and the Passing D, where Troy’s return is the key that will certainly unleash the full bag of new tricks from Coach LeBeau…

    That said, its going to be great to finally see some Steeler Football, have a great season, everybody!!

    • FW

      Agreed. There have been a few times when the designed run gaps closed up and RM bumped it outside for a big gain. Begs the question why BA didn’t design more plays to attack the weak spots.

    • Bigswa

      This is a balanced league. Nobody in there right mind would run it 20 times in a row, and people don’t mean that when they say establish the run. Also, you can’t run it well unless you commit to it. Running the football isn’t something you can do just because you want to do it. Good running teams run the football. For example, you can’t be a good jump shooter if you don’t shoot and establish a rhythm.

      Football is cyclical. In fact, because the league is such a passing one, you should run it more to limit possessions. If you think letting Dixon air it out because it’s a passing league is foolhardy. Simply put, you should do what’s working. Never cut off your nose to spite your face. Good OCs use both to complement each other.

  • AC

    2-2, followed by 7-5=9-7, again. Book it.

  • Dean Keaton

    I was there the last time the Falcons came to Heinz Field – it was Michael Vick’s comeback to a tie. It felt as bad as a loss, and well, ties are stupid, so I remember leaving that game feeling like I didn’t get my money’s worth, even though we actually got to see a full extra quarter of play. Here’s to a Steelers victory tomorrow!