Monday, September 13, 2010

Thoughts on the Steelers' Opener

Dennis Dixon, QB: Dixon was making his second career start.* He did fine. Good performances early in the exhibition season excited Steeler fans, but then his miserable outing with the first-teamers against Denver tempered all enthusiasm. The goal yesterday was not to have Dennis Dixon lose the game. In that respect it was successful.

I had a conversation with friends during the second half about what Ben Roethlisberger was doing at that moment and the conclusion we came to was that he was probably smashing his living room to pieces with a baseball bat. I have no doubt Ben would have thrown for a ton of yards and led the Steelers to an easy victory yesterday. It probably wasn't an easy game for him to watch. Dixon continually underthrew receivers and on more than one occasion he failed to make the routine play.  Also, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians inexplicably failed to take advantage of Dixon's mobility by rolling the pocket or getting him on the edge with a naked bootleg. If the Steelers don't do that Sunday in Tennessee it will be a very long day.

Dixon did complete 18-26 for 236 yards and made some good throws downfield at important moments, particularly a 52-yarder to Mike Wallace, but he needs to play better the next three weeks.

 *His first came last year against the Ravens in Baltimore. I've said this many times, but let me get it out there once more. There is a misconception that Dixon played really well in that game. He didn't. It's true he was constrained because the Steelers' coaches didn't want him running the ball without a viable backup, but he really did not play well. He made some good throws in the first half, but was awful in the second half and threw a game-losing interception in overtime.

Offensive Line: The team's biggest concern the past few years, the O-line was pretty good yesterday. Maurkice Pouncey started and was solid at center. Flozel Adams* was only flagged for one false start and the line did a good job of protecting Dixon until they gave up back-to-back sacks near the end of regulation. The only downside was Max Starks' high-ankle sprain which probably means he's out until after the bye week. I would give Tony Hills the start at left tackle in his place.

*I have resigned myself to Adams getting on false start penalty a game and one holding penalty every other game. It's just the way it's going to be.

Rashard Mendenhall, RB: "Spinner." Mendenhall must have spun on at least half of his twenty-two carries. That's a dangerous move in the NFL because you can get killed by a blindside hit and you're more vulnerable to getting the ball stripped. But it seems to work for Rashard. Mendenhall's fifty-yard gallop on the Steelers only offensive play of overtime (he didn't spin) was the game-winner. He got great blocking up front and showed good top-end speed, outrunning a DB to the end zone. He's the real deal and is going to have to continue to carry the team until Ben is back.

The defense was outstanding. In my pregame analysis Sunday morning*, I felt like the defense would be the story. After blowing five late leads last year they needed to show they could still close games out. Mission accomplished. Atlanta ran for 58 yards on 25 carries and didn't score a touchdown. My major concern was with the pass defense and the Steelers looked much improved. Even though Matt Ryan threw for 252 yards he only averaged 5.2 yards/attempt, the key statistic.

*You can see my picks from the past week here. I went 3-0 on my NFL picks and 1-0 in college. You can also get them on twitter here.

Lawrence Timmons and Bryant McFadden, in particular, were fantastic. Timmons had nine tackles including three for loss and McFadden added 12 tackles. Troy Polamalu, back after playing only five games last year, made a highlight-reel interception in the last two minutes that should have won the game for the Steelers in regulation. Both outside backers recorded sacks. Again the only blemish was injury-related as Casey Hampton went out in the second quarter with a pulled hamstring. Ziggy Hood and Chris Hoke will see more playing time as a result.

The improvement here was massive. Dan Sepulveda and the cover units were both fantastic. Sepulveda averaged 50.8 yards on five punts and had a net of 47. His booming punt inside the last two minutes kept Atlanta pinned in their own end and helped set up Polamalu's interception. The cover units looked nothing like last year. Second-round pick Jason Worilds showed why he got a helmet when he leveled a Falcon punt returner in the first half, while special teams ace Anthony Madison was held on the opening kickoff of overtime giving the Falcons terrible field position to start extra time.

I don't know if it was due to the good weather, but Jeff Reed was bombing the ball. He had one touchback and was otherwise getting his kickoffs inside the five. He nailed a Heinz Field record 52-yard field goal to get the Steelers on the board early and also converted a 36 and 34-yarders. He hit the right upright on a 55-yard attempt that would have been good from 60+. Yes, he missed a 40-yarder that should have won the game, but overall, the performace was very encouraging.

CONCLUSION: Coach Mike Tomlin's four first round draft picks all had a big hand in the Steelers win, with Timmons and Mendenhall the best players on each side of the ball. The defense still looks exceptionally stout against the run and the return of McFadden and Polamalu makes a huge difference in the secondary. Special teams had to improve and the early returns are good. The coverage units look very fast and athletic. There is room for improvement in the return game and it will be interesting to see when Tomlin decides to trust Antonio Brown rather than go the conservative route. Dennis Dixon will still be the guy who determines how the Steelers get through these four games. A performance like this one and they most likely go 2-2. But, if we see some improvement, 3-1 is much more likely. The toughest test will be this week in Tennessee.

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