Duct-Taping the Steelers Together Without Starks and Hampton

JJ mentioned this at the end of the Steelers Lounge podcast (subscribe now!), but it’s worth repeating: if somebody had told you that Pittsburgh would be 1-0 with their third-string quarterback under center and after losing their left tackle and nose tackle, you’d take it.

The preseason post-Ben-suspension news was to suck it up for four weeks, find a way to go 2-2, regroup during the bye and get back into the ass-kicking business in Week 6 against the Browns. But fans are selfish and I’ll happily admit that, promptly after Rashard Mendenhall ripped off a 50-yarder to win it in overtime, I thought, “You know, 3-1 or, hell, 4-0 isn’t completely impossible now.”

In all likelihood, it probably is, but, hey, sports are our distraction from the everyday mundanities. If I want to dream about a Ben-less Steelers team going 4-0, give me that. Expectations and reality will have their head-on collision soon enough (like, say, Sunday afternoon). Especially now that it looks like Max Starks and Casey Hampton will be in their Duce Staley Memorial Game Day sweats against a Titans team that historically gives the Steelers trouble.

Truthfully, I wouldn’t feel particularly confident about this game even if Ben were under center because a) it’s in Nashville and b) Jeff Fisher’s mustache is nearly unstoppable at home. (The insane part of me would love to see Bill Cowher lead the Steelers out of the tunnel Sunday and instead of stopping at the sidelines, he makes a beeline for Fisher and breaks his leg. Again. There’s your pregame message.)

Instead, Dennis Dixon will get his second start of the season and barring some Mr. Miyagi magic, Jonathan Scott will replace Starks, and Hoke et al will take over for Hampton. And while losing Ben is a huge deal, I’m less concerned about Starks and Hampton, at least in the short term.

First — and JCRODRIGUEZ made this point in the comments — the offensive line is improved with the additions of Pouncey and Flozell. I’ve been beating that drum too — the 2008 o-line was an abomination, the ’09 version was slightly improved, and this unit has a chance to be even better. (And in case it’s not obvious: “even better” means “approaching mediocrity.”)

Look, I know that Willie Colon has come a long way since 2006, but remember the weekly calls from fans for the organization to move him to guard? And those conversations were usually after Willie had been flagged three or four times the previous game for not lining up on the line of scrimmage. My point: he’s an adequate right tackle, but let’s not make him more than that. Flozell, after a rough start in the preseason, has been fine. And when you’re talking Steelers o-line fine is more than enough.

Losing Starks, even for just a week, isn’t ideal. The question is will it be enough to effect what the Steelers want to do offensively. The last time Pittsburgh was in Tennessee (Week 16 of the 2008 season), Ben took a beating. Haynesworth didn’t even play, but then-rookie Jason Jones had 3.5 sacks and forced two fumbles. I suspect the Titans will prepare differently for Dixon than they would Big Ben, and the threat of Dixon breaking off huge runs will factor into their game plan.

But for as bad as Dixon looked in the first half against the Falcons, he pulled it together for the final two quarters. If he can overcome the short-hops to Randle El and line drives to Heath Miller near the sidelines, Week 2 should be better. That said, defensively, the Titans are much more aggressive than the Falcons, but that could be good news for the Steelers. More chances for big plays off misdirections, bootlegs and play action. In fact, I’m all for two or three deep looks to Mike Wallace off play-action. It’s been mentioned here a bunch, but you can’t overthrow Wallace. Worst case: incompletion.

My biggest concerns stem from a conservative strategy that backfires. A lot of runs and safe passes early are fine, but as soon as a turnover switches field position or puts points on the board for Tennessee, that game plan goes out the window. The problem: the Steelers try to  make up a double-digit deficit, the Titans know it and come after Dixon. Unlike Byron or Charlie, Dixon’s elusiveness has to be accounted for but every quarterback — even Ben — gets gun shy. Just putting that out there.

Defensively, Hampton’s strained ham hock means that Hoke, Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood could see a lot of time. I was talking to my buddy about this after Michael Turner’s no-show performance in Week 1: big backs don’t worry me. The Steelers regularly handle them, especially when they try to run outside. Chris Johnson, on the other hand, scares the shit out of me. He is a one-man game-changer and he does for Vince Young what we all hope Mendenhall can do for Dennis this month (so far, so good).

I don’t know if losing Hampton will have any bearing on how the Titans attack the Pittsburgh run defense, although if the Steelers had to be without one of their defensive stars for this game, Casey’s pretty high on the list. Speed is at a premium, and after watching what Juan Timmons did to the Falcons, I’m looking forward to watching him against Tennessee. I think Ed Bouchette pointed it out after the game, but if Polamalu was a linebacker he would have looked like Timmons against Atlanta.

I’ll be honest: this post was as much about talking myself into the Steelers’ chances against the Titans as it was an examination of the actual game. (I’m guessing you already knew that.) But look at it this way: even down two key players, Pittsburgh is quite capable of heading to Tampa 2-0. It could be worse. We could be Jets fans.

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  • FW

    This ‘n’ ‘at:

    Vince Young had the week’s best passer rating (142.8). Seems that number needs some correction toward his career average 73.4. Definitely need to stack the run and let Vince try to beat us. Without Snack, Hokie will play, but we also saw a good bit of Zigs and Eason. That may go towards confusing their line play, hopefully. I was pretty pleased with how those three played against a pretty decent Atlanta line.

    Would like to see Manny Sanders get some snaps, and let ARE sit a bit. ARE won’t muff any returns, so he’s good for that, but.

    Esoterica: Titans had 17 first downs to Oakland’s 21; of those, 10 were rushing, 6 passing, 1 penalty. Yes, you make Vince convert those thirds. Vince’s rating was plummy, but he had all of 154 yards passing. That represents a dip of 3 yards per game from VY’s astounding 2009 average of 157 per game. 2009 saw Ben get sacked 50 times, league-leading and tied with Aaron Rodgers. Meanwhile, Vince got sacked 9 times and Kerry 6. That’s not an anomaly, that’s the standard of late for the TTs, stout in pass pro, and can obviously spring holes for the speedy CJ. Despite that protection, VY’s completion percentage for 2009 was 58.7%, although he notched 76.5% against Oakland. For Dixon, the completion percentage was 69.2% against the Falcons, 46.2% versus the Ravens.

  • Cols714

    Funny, I was just thinking the Steelers were going to be 4-0.

  • Kevin F.

    You know what worries me about the upcoming game this weekend against the Titans? Big Ben was 33-43 for 363 yards against them last year, and we STILL only scored 13 points. Our running game was non-existent (23 Carries, 36 yds.). While Ben did only throw one TD and 2 INT’s, the numbers prove that the ONLY way we could move the ball was through the air.

    We will have to be able to gain some ground in the running game this year, or else we may have to rely on our defense to get into the end zone to put up some points this week. I have faith in Dennis Dixon, but only as a game manager, completing short passes. He has proven this season/pre-season that he has no business throwing the out pattern (short or deep). He was decently efficient while dinking and dunking on Sunday, but those drives all faultered once the defense tightened up on him in the red zone.

    Getting Mike Wallace behind the defense for a long score might also be a way to get into the end zone. I would rather Dixon try a few bombs to Wallace rather that throwing the out pattern. At least this way you get a good chance at a long pass play or pass interference, and even if the pass is picked off, it would more likely resemble a punt than anything.

    I have a distinct feeling that this game could be decided by a QB mistake in the form of a pick-6 thrown by Young or Dixon. Here;s to hoping it’s Young that makes that mistake!

  • countertorque

    My preseason projection came out the same as it always has: 16-0.

  • Bigswa

    Containing Chris Johnson is about Gap Integrity. What makes him tough to stop is that they run mostly out of 11 and 12 personnel. When they are in 11 personnel, CJ is deadly. He averages 8.7 YPC.

  • drinkingclub

    If I want to dream about a Ben-less Steelers team going 4-0, give me that.

    Does the dream end after the bye and Roethlisberger starts against Cleveland and Florio’s head pops off on one of those national tv segments he does? ‘Cause I had that dream too.

  • Wildbill99

    I’ll lay down a bet right now that worthless quarterback Dixon (in some peoples opinions) will take us 3-1 and probably 4-0 and IF they start Ben in week 6 we lose the next two games.

    You people are so in love with Ben you can’t see how crappy he really is.

    Ben loses games games we are favored to win by 10 points or more.

    Ben destroys the morale and esprit de corp of the Pittsburgh Steelers players

    Ben needs to go


    • FW

      HIlarious. Thanks.