Byron Leftwich Injury Bolsters Dennis Dixon Into Starting QB Role

jonathan staub@JStaubSportTalkCorrespondent ISeptember 4, 2010

PITTSBURGH - AUGUST 25:  Byron Leftwich #4 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up prior to the preseason game against the Carolina Panthers on September 2, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

He hobbled, staggered, and willed his way back to the huddle after teammate Mewelde Moore and Panther safety Marcus Hudson collided near him in the middle of the second quarter Thursday night at Heinz Field in the Steelers preseason finale.

For all we know, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, along with the 50,000+ in attendance, was having flashbacks to Byron Leftwich’s heroic performance at Marshall where his offensive line carried him down the field in one of college footballs greatest moments.

But there he stood, stoic as always, as he was experiencing every NFL head coach’s worst nightmare. His opening day starter, for all intensive purposes, was collapsing to his knees due to a freak incident in the season’s most meaningless game.

For all the questions that had arisen for Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wake of Ben Roethlisberger’s 3-4-6 game suspension, the biggest and most crucial decision was who would fill in as the Steelers signal caller to open the season.

Pittsburgh has perhaps the most athletic quarterback in the league in Dennis Dixon, but obviously lacked the confidence in him to lead beyond a reasonable doubt when they went and traded a seventh round pick to reacquire their backup from their Super Bowl season just two years ago. It is not to say that the former Heisman Trophy candidate isn’t talented enough to do it, but that he lacks the experience and game management skills of a more seasoned pro.

Despite possessing an infinitely high ceiling, the Steelers seemed more interested in entering a survival mode and bringing in a quarterback who might not win any games on his own, but certainly wouldn’t lose any either.

With Leftwich, the Steelers had a veteran who was familiar with their offense and could manage a game and the situation, not to mention stretch the field with one of the stronger arms in the league. Leftwich still possesses the tools to play in this league, but he earned his favor as the safe choice. He’s not flashy, but he’d get the job done.

Then, there was the flashy and sexy pick amongst Steelers nation. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out what the Steelers really had in Dixon. He flashed moments of greatness in his sole NFL start last season when he filled in for Roethlisberger in Week 12 against the Baltimore Ravens in Prime Time, but he also sunk when his inexperience was exposed in overtime.

For all he did right on that fateful night, it was his lone error that cost the Steelers the game, and as it would turn out, a playoff berth. (granted the Steelers had numerous opportunities to win one more game, but that divisional contest would have bolstered them to a playoff berth over Baltimore who reached the postseason with the same record as the Steelers and finished one game better in the division)

Half of Steelers nation clamored for Dixon to get his chance, and the other half perhaps secretly wondered about it under their breath as they prepared to accept Leftwich and perhaps a split of their first four games.

Any hopes of the Dixon era beginning in Pittsburgh seemed to fade away in the thin air of Mile High Stadium in Denver when the former Oregon Duck went 9-16 for 94 yards and two interceptions against the Broncos when given a chance to show what he could do with the first team offense against a team that finished third in the NFL in pass defense just a season ago.

While his performance was poor, some analysts were left wondering, this one included, whether or not Dixon was trying to do to much to win over the coaching staff and perhaps tried to force one to many balls to receivers when he would have been better served to scramble on foot or simply throw the ball away.

It seemed as though his poor performance all but sealed his own fate until Thursday night’s nightmare in the second quarter. Now with Leftwich awaiting results of an MRI on a knee injury that fellow quarterback Charlie Batch described as a “serious” injury, Steelers nation is all but guaranteed at least one start from Dixon when the team opens up their season less than 10 days from now against the Atlanta Falcons.

"It's an opportunity, I guess, but it's unfortunate for Byron for what he went through. But this team has to continue to go forward," Dixon told reporters after the Steelers finished off the Panthers 19-3 Thursday night.

While it is unfortunate, is this the best thing that could have happened for the Steelers outside of Roethlisberger’s suspension potentially being dropped to less than four games?

Let’s look at some of the intangibles that Dixon brings to the table, most notably his speed and ability and to make a tackler miss in the open field.

The Steelers offensive line that is widely regarded among the lower third of lines in the league,as their starting quarterbacks have been sacked more than 100 times combined over the past two seasons.

Placing Dixon in the backfield with the speed of a wide receiver who is just as likely to scramble as he is to throw will almost certainly make teams think twice before sending in constant pressure on every play.

Facing fewer blitzes, and more cautious pass rushers will not only help the offensive line build confidence and success. It will also open holes for running back Rashard Mendenhall. Teams will fight to keep Dixon in the pocket in fear of 30-yard bursts much like that in Denver, or much like the 24-yard scamper around the outside and into the end zone he had that Monday night against Baltimore.

With a crop of receivers that are both physical and fast, Pittsburgh deploys one of the more talented offenses in the league, and this will only play to Dixon’s advantage.

Big Ben has made a career out extending plays and gaining huge chunks of yards on broken plays. With yet another quarterback stepping in who has the ability to scramble to keep plays alive, it won’t be long before Dixon and speedy wideout Mike Wallace connect on a deep ball, or Dixon finds Hines Ward or Heath Miller over the middle trailing the play.

Upper management might not want to admit it, but Dixon is a better fit for a team that has questions on the offensive line, but the athletes at the skill positions to make up for it. Think about it, do you really think that Steeler fans want to watch Leftwich take a beating behind offensive linemen that might be faster than he is?

No matter who he started on opening day, Coach Tomlin was going to be taking heat from half of Steelers nation. With the recent injury to Leftwich, Tomlin is left with a guilt free decision to start Dixon. From a coaching standpoint, he is going to fully be able to judge what he has in his third-year quarterback.

He is also left with perhaps the best-case scenario in handling this four-game debacle that Big Ben has left them in. If Dixon wins, he plays. If he loses, and Leftwich is ready come Week 2, it’s a no-brainer to turn the reins over to him, unless of course, Dixon has the game of his career.

As we look ahead, however, many will wonder how Dixon will match up against Atlanta, and potential future opponents.

While this seems to be the obvious question, I think a better matchup to watch will be the internal battle that is about to present itself between Dixon and the much maligned offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bruce Arians.

Arians has come under heat in past seasons for the Steelers inability to convert not only in the red zone, but in short yardage situations as well. The Steelers red zone offense ranked 21st in the NFL, converting at a rate of 48 percent (27 td’s in 56 trips) in 2009.

With the duel threat that Dixon presents, the Steelers have more success in short yardage situations and inside the red zone…that is, of course, considering one main factor…

The most intriguing thing to watch in the Steelers 2010 season opener will be whether or not Bruce Arians and the Steelers utilize Dixon’s talents correctly and allow the third-year man to run wild.

The Steelers may be in survival mode, but the chance is there for them to come out of this suspension ordeal at 3-1 or even 4-0, not just 2-2 like many are hoping.

A problem that is almost always present when Dixon sets himself under center is the Steelers' unwillingness to let him take over games the way he is capable. In other words, the Steelers play too conservatively.

Too often, the Steelers begin to rely on the run and take the game out of Dixon's hands. Last year versus the Ravens, the Steelers were two different teams in the first and second half. When the shackles came off and Dixon was presented with an opportunity to pass and/or run himself, the Steelers offense began to click and move the ball more efficiently than the first-half offense, which featured run after run after run after…well you get the picture.

This is, of course, not to hint that Dixon is Peyton Manning by any stretch of the imagination. Pittsburgh will not be successful if they rely on Dixon to pass the ball 30+ times a game, but they will also falter if they don’t allow him to scramble at least 6-8 times either.

It goes without saying that Dixon will need to take advantage of holes that present themselves, but the Steelers coaching staff, as well as Dixon himself, need to not be afraid to let this happen and encourage it when necessary.

A simplified offense, and a renewed commitment to the run, strong and athletic receivers, a duel threat at quarterback that should keep defenses at bay, and a willingness to take a chance and trust the young man to do what he does best will be the keys to victory, not just survival, for the Steelers over the first month of the season.

It’s not Dixon that Steelers fans should worry about. It is their coaching staff. A player’s confidence is an intangible that is very delicate in today’s day and age. Constant conservatism and an unwillingness to lay it all on the line will only limit what he does on opening day.

Unleash his talents and success awaits. To steal a memorable line from a recent blockbuster hit…I believe in Dennis Dixon…and so should you Steelers Nation.


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