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NFL Preview - Atlanta (0-0) at Pittsburgh (0-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons enter the 2010 NFL season brimming with optimism, while uncertainty surrounds the Pittsburgh Steelers in the aftermath of an offseason filled with trials and tribulations.
It's also a time for opportunity, one which Dennis Dixon is hoping to make the most of.
The young quarterback gets his chance to stamp himself as the Steelers' short- term answer at the position when the Black and Gold host the Falcons this Sunday in a season-opening interconference showdown between 2008 playoff participants that failed to meet expectations a year ago.
Still smarting from a disappointing 9-7 campaign that followed the franchise's unprecedented sixth Super Bowl victory, the Steelers were further blindsided by the off-the-field actions of star signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger two months after the team concluded its 2009 season. The invaluable field general was investigated for sexual assault for an incident in a Georgia nightclub back in March, and while no charges were filed, the high-profile case drew Roethlisberger a four-game suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
With their regular triggerman unavailable until mid-October, the Steelers will pin their hopes this week on Dixon, an athletic but raw third-year pro whose only extensive game action came in a three-point road loss to rival Baltimore in late November of last season. Starting for an injured Roethlisberger, the 25-year-old both ran and threw for a touchdown while completing 12-of-26 passes for 145 yards against a stout Ravens' defense.
While Dixon will get the nod for Sunday's lid-lifter, he's no guarantee to be directing the offense for all four games Pittsburgh will be without Roethlisberger. The Steelers do have a more experienced alternative in offseason addition Byron Leftwich, though the veteran will be sidelined for at least this game after spraining his left knee in the final exhibition test.
With an unproven commodity under center, Pittsburgh figures to rely heavily on talented running back Rashard Mendenhall, an 1,100-yard rusher in 2009, and a still-formidable defense that finished second in the NFL in sacks last season and will have a healthy Troy Polamalu on the field for Week 1. The All-Pro safety was limited to just five games last year due to a lingering knee injury.
Playing at Heinz Field could also help ease the burden on Dixon, as the Steelers have amassed an impressive 19-5 record in the Steel City during head coach Mike Tomlin's three seasons at the helm. Pittsburgh has not lost a home opener since a 30-17 setback to Oakland in 2002.
While the long-suffering Falcons achieved an organizational first with last year's 9-7 finish, marking the first back-to-back winning seasons in club history, that record still paled in comparison to the 11-5 mark Atlanta delivered in a stellar 2008 debut for head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan.
Injuries played a part in the Falcons' dropoff, with Ryan missing nearly three full games with a turf toe problem and a high ankle sprain causing bruising running back Michael Turner to sit out five weeks. A porous defense that was particularly inept against the pass was also a factor, prompting general manager Thomas Dimitroff to sign shutdown corner Dunta Robinson to a hefty free-agent contract and use the team's first-round choice in April's draft on promising linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
The Steelers have a decisive 11-2-1 edge in the all-time series with the Falcons, but were 41-38 overtime losers when they last faced Atlanta, at the Georgia Dome in 2006. The previous meeting, played at Heinz Field in 2002, resulted in a 34-34 tie. Pittsburgh's last win in the series was a 13-9 triumph at Three Rivers Stadium in 1999, while Atlanta's only other win in the series was a 27-16 home victory in 1970. The Falcons are 0-5-1 in Pittsburgh all-time.
Tomlin and Smith will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Turner (871 rushing yards, 10 TD, 5 receptions) was an absolute difference- maker in the Falcons' surprising 2008 performance, with the powerful back ripping off 1,699 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns to earn All-Pro honors, but injuries and fitness issues rendered him far less an impact player last season. Since Atlanta is 10-2 when Turner has eclipsed the 100-yard mark during his two-year tenure with the organization, it's imperative that the club gets its workhorse untracked. The less effective running game caused Ryan (2916 passing yards, 22 TD, 14 INT) to carry a larger burden on the offense, and the level-headed quarterback's overall production took a dip from his terrific Rookie of the Year campaign as a result. The offense can be awfully hard to stop when firing on all cylinders, though, with Turner able to churn out chunks of yards on ground and Ryan firing precision passes to two elite receiving options in wideout Roddy White (85 receptions, 1153 yards, 11 TD) and perennial Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez (83 receptions, 6 TD). The Falcons will likely be without starting split end Michael Jenkins (50 receptions, 1 TD) for the opener due to a shoulder injury, with savvy veteran Brian Finneran (11 receptions) the top candidate to man that spot alongside White and shifty slot receiver Harry Douglas.
After leading the NFL in virtually every major category during the team's championship run of 2008, the Steelers defense couldn't quite sustain that level of excellence last season. The unit was hardly a liability, however, ranking fifth overall in yards allowed (305.3 ypg) and third against the run (89.9 avg) while generating a healthy 47 sacks, and there's room for improvement now that Polamalu (20 tackles, 3 INT) and lynchpin end Aaron Smith (9 tackles, 2 sacks) are back healthy after missing most of last year. Pittsburgh has allowed only one individual 100-yard rusher over its last 34 regular-season contests, largely because of the work of Smith and sturdy nose tackle Casey Hampton (43 tackles, 2.5 sacks) in the trenches, while 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (79 tackles, 10 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (62 tackles, 13.5 sacks) form one of the league's premier pass-rushing outside linebacker tandems. The secondary was a bit of a sore spot last year, but the return of Polamalu and re-addition of cornerback Bryant McFadden (69 tackles, 15 PD), acquired in a draft-day trade with Arizona, could shore up that area.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh has leaned on Roethlisberger as much as any team in the NFL at the quarterback spot over the past few years, but won't ask Dixon (145 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) to be anything more than an efficient game-manager during his time under center. The former University of Oregon standout did display good accuracy in the preseason and possesses excellent mobility, an asset when playing behind a line that gave up 50 sacks last season. He'll have a strong support system in place as well, as Mendenhall (1108 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 8 TD) is a capable lead back and both prolific wide receiver Hines Ward (95 receptions, 6 TD) and Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller (76 receptions, 6 TD) really know how to get open. The Steelers did part ways with skilled but troublesome wideout Santonio Holmes during the offseason, but sophomore Mike Wallace (39 receptions, 6 TD) came through with a strong rookie season and seems ready to step in and fill the void. Tomlin wants to become more physical at the point of attack, and may have gotten his wish with the addition of highly-regarded rookie center Maurkice Pouncey and veteran right tackle Flozell Adams to a revamped front wall.
Dixon will be facing an Atlanta defense that was rather generous to enemy quarterbacks a year ago, surrendering an average of 242.1 passing yards per game (28th overall) and 25 touchdowns through the air. That poor showing prompted the signing of Robinson (64 tackles with Houston), a high-caliber cover man who should provide an instant upgrade to a secondary that also contains a budding star in third-year free safety Thomas DeCoud (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT). Seasoned sack-master John Abraham (35 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and fellow end Kroy Biermann (49 tackles, 5 sacks) will be in charge of applying the heat to the Steelers' inexperienced quarterback, but the duo may miss the inside presence of tackle Jonathan Babineaux (47 tackles, 6 sacks), the team's sack leader in 2009 who'll sit out Sunday's test for a personal conduct policy violation. Rookie Corey Peters, a third-round pick out of Kentucky, is expected to fill in, with Weatherspoon joining a solid linebacking group that also includes third-year stalwart Curtis Lofton (133 tackles) in the middle and 12th-year man Mike Peterson (109 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) on the weak side. Those two helped the Falcons finish a respectable 10th in run defense (106.8 ypg) last season.
A healthy Turner is unquestionably a top-tier fantasy back and a must-start regardless of the opponent, but owners should scale back their expectations in this matchup against a Pittsburgh defense that excels in stopping the run. Mendenhall will get plenty of touches on the Steelers' side and should be fine to use as long as his offense isn't bogged down by the quarterback switch. The value of Ward, Miller and Wallace certainly takes a hit with Dixon around, though the first two figure to get enough looks to be passable -- albeit risky -- options. White and Gonzalez both get a thumbs-up as the clear-cut top targets for Ryan, a decent choice at quarterback though he lacks the upside of the high-end members at his position. Finally, both defenses look like good picks, as the Steelers are always stout on that side of the ball and the Falcons get an offense that will be minus its No. 1 signal-caller and tends to give up a lot of sacks.
While the focus will be on Dixon early on, all the talk by the end of the game will be about a Pittsburgh defense that will keep Turner's contributions to a minimum while unleashing a fierce pass rush that figures to create an uncomfortable afternoon for Ryan. Dixon will surely have his ups and downs, but the emerging talent should pose enough of a threat with both his arm and legs to keep the Falcons honest and pave the way for a big day for Mendenhall and the Pittsburgh ground game. For at least one week, the Steelers will withstand the absence of Roethlisberger at the controls of the offense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Falcons 10
09/09 17:54:42 ET