The Pittsburgh Steelers open up their 2010 season at Heinz Field this Sunday against an up and coming Atlanta Falcons team.
The Falcons have a potentially potent offense with Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez as well as a talented defense which features players such as John Abraham, Mike Peterson, and Dunta Robinson.
It is also a team that is hungry for a return trip to the playoffs.
Pittsburgh will face a challenge within their own roster as they will start Dennis Dixon.
Dixon, who earned the starting job after Ben Roethlisberger was suspended and Byron Leftwich injured, will only be making his second-career start.
While he is inexperienced, Dixon has a ton of talent and will be one of the keys if the Steelers want to win this Sunday.
Hines Ward said, “Let Dennis be Dennis. That’s all we as for. We are not asking Dennis to be Ben (Roethlisberger), or Byron (Leftwich), or Charlie (Batch). We want him to do what he does.”
What Dixon does best is move around the pocket which can enable him to make plays with both his arm and his legs.
Dixon could create matchup problems against slower linemen and linebackers if he is able to get loose outside of the pocket. This will give him a run/pass option, but more important, it will give him an offense that he is comfortable with.
If Bruce Arians tries to turn him into a pocket passer, the Steelers may be in trouble because Dixon is not known for his ability to pick apart a defense with his arm.
Ward added, “I want to see him run around making plays. If he gets outside the pocket, then it’s OK to run the ball…He brings another dimension.”
Mike Wallace agrees.
“He is a dual threat. He can throw it, but you know at any time he can break a 40- or 50-yard run. His best asset will be his speed.”
According to Mike Tomlin, Dixon would have the same say in the game plan as any other quarterback would and Dixon will utilize this to his full advantage.
“Whatever it takes for me to make first downs, I'll do it. I'll run the ball or throw it. I think I'll have a little more freedom to do some things this time, but I still have to manage the game."
The Falcons may be able to establish a good pass rush against the Steelers offensive line and have an upgraded secondary after adding Robinson this year to man their top cornerback spot.
They are also matching up against Dixon, who has yet to prove that he can win a game with his arm alone. This could mean that they will stack eight men in the box and force Dixon to make plays in the air.
However, with rookie Maurkice Pouncey starting at center, the entire Steelers line has improved and they will need to establish a run game behind him as well as right tackle Flozell Adams.
This will take pressure off of Dixon and allow him the freedom to make plays when needed as opposed to forcing him into a passing attack as they would with Roethlisberger.
The run game could also open up the play action pass which would allow the Steelers to use Wallace’s deep speed to get behind the defenders. It would also give Dixon more freedom when running outside of the pocket.
One of the fastest ways to get an offense out of its rhythm is for them to go behind early.
Almost immediately, they begin to slightly alter their game plan into more of a passing offense to try to come back. This is a situation that the Steelers do not want to find themselves in.
They will need to set the tone early and get a lead so they can control the tempo of the game and continue to do what they want to offensively.
An early deficit could put too much pressure on Dixon, playing in front of an opening day home crowd, forcing him to make poor decisions which could cost the team.
The offense may struggle throughout the early part of the season, especially in week one. The defense can help out in a couple of ways.
First, they will need to control the Falcons' offense to keep this a low scoring game. This will be a challenge given the weapons that Atlanta possesses.
Pittsburgh’s defense can also help out the offense by winning the field position battle. The goal will be to keep the Falcons deep in their zone so the Steelers can get good starting field position for their drives.
Creating turnovers would also help set the offense up to score points. Any extra field position edge that Pittsburgh could get would be a huge plus.
Great tight ends have had a successful history against the Steelers.
They don’t get much greater than Gonzalez. Not only is he one of the all-time great tight ends, but he also rates very highly in career receptions of active players.
Gonzalez still creates matchup problems for opposing defenses and the Steelers will have to put the athletic Troy Polamalu or Lawrence Timmons on him.
If they cannot keep him under wraps, Gonzalez can still put up a big play to set up a score.
The vanilla defense is over and it is time to bring out the Blitzburgh defense.
James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley make up one of the most prolific pass rushing tandems in the NFL.
Their presence can disrupt Ryan, who will be trying to re-establish himself after have a down year last season.
This will also ease the burden on the cornerbacks, who struggled last season.
Pittsburgh has another dangerous pass rusher in Timmons. He is their fastest and most athletic linebacker and has shown the ability to get to the quarterback blitzing both up the middle and around the outside.
The clear player to keep an eye on Sunday on offense is Dennis Dixon.
Dixon will be under a tremendous amount of pressure starting the season as the Steelers' quarterback.
The team has high hopes for this season and much of it will rest on how they perform over the first four games.
Dixon flashed the ability of being a great playmaker at quarterback throughout the preseason, but also showed he has a long way to go.
Sunday afternoon it is for real and Dixon has a chance to show if he can be the leader of this team for the first four weeks of the season.
Troy Polamalu is back and the defense will need him.
Polamalu will be a key factor in slowing down Gonzalez and White in the passing game as well as Turner on the ground.
When he is healthy and on the field, Polamalu raises the Steelers' defense from good to great and that is the level that they will have to perform this season if they wish to return to the playoffs.
Last season, Polamalu started off the season poised to be the best player in the league. If he can have a similar start, Pittsburgh will be in for a good day on Sunday.
- The Steelers 1:00 p.m. kick against the Falcons is one of 10 games that start at 1:00 p.m. this season.
- Hines Ward is five receptions away from 900 for his career and 53 yards from 11,000 career receiving yards.
- The Steelers have won their last seven opening day games.
- Pittsburgh is 6-0 when opening their season at Heinz Field. They are 8-1 in home openers since Heinz Field opened.
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