For Pittsburgh, life without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the next four weeks begins Sunday. Third-year quarterback Dennis Dixon, who was impressive in his start against Baltimore a season ago, will be in control of the offense, beginning with the Steelers’ opening game against Atlanta.
With only one start under his belt, there’s a little uncertainty about how he will perform. However, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin holds confidence that his young quarterback can get the job done.
“Dennis is a third-year guy and has been around here a little bit,” Tomlin said in a conference call with the Atlanta media. “He started a game for us last year. We’re not reducing the playbook because of his youth or inexperience. More than anything if there is any reduction in the playbook is because it’s that time of year, the beginning of the year.”
Dixon’s performance against what could be an improved Atlanta defense, especially against the run, will be the focal point. There’s no doubt the Steelers will run the ball, and maybe more so with a quarterback who has just one start under his belt.
“With Dixon you’re looking at a versatile quarterback and you hate playing against quarterbacks that can get out of the pocket,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said.
Keys for the Steelers
• With Santonio Holmes gone, the Steelers will need a receiver to step up and fill the void. Enter Mike Wallace, a second-year wideout from Ole Miss who is slowly emerging as a deep threat. Wallace’s speed could stretch the Falcons secondary, looking to improve upon its 28th pass defense ranking in 2009.
• Another key for Pittsburgh will be to slow down Atlanta’s rushing attack, led by running back Michael Turner. The Steelers’ 3-4 defense will aim to force runs inside while eliminating the opposition’s playmakers to reach the edge. Pittsburgh’s front seven is stout, led by outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, but will have its hands full with Turner and the Falcons’ offensive linemen.
Keys for the Falcons
• With Dixon in, Pittsburgh will try to grind the ball and win the time of possession battle. With Atlanta defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, Trey Lewis must step in and help fellow defensive tackle Peria Jerry generate a push in the middle. Defensive end Kroy Biermann has earned a start and will be looked at to help slow down running back Rashard Mendenhall.
• The Falcons’ secondary also needs to come together, as the first team unit did not take a game snap together during the preseason. Robinson missed time with a hamstring injury, and cornerback Brian Williams finally returned from an ACL tear at the end of training camp. But that did give young corners Brent Grimes and Chris Owens more time to receive more reps. A year of experience and Robinson’s addition helps in theory, but this group needs to prove it on the field. Bottom Line
With Dixon starting there’s a certain element of surprise with his ability to run. But there’s still no evidence suggesting Dixon will be able to fully test Atlanta downfield in the passing game. Both teams will look to establish the run early, but Atlanta will be able to open up the play action passing game. Atlanta wins 24–20.