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.”