A new Steelers season is about to begin in less than 48 hours as the Steelers will host the Atlanta Falcons at Heinz Field. Quarterback Dennis Dixon will make his second career start as Ben Roethlisberger begins his four game suspension and Byron Leftwich sits out with a MCL knee injury. Below are 7 keys to the game that I believe the Steelers need to focus on to beat the Falcons.
Let Dennis Be Dennis - If we learned anything about Dennis Dixon in his only career start last year versus Baltimore is that he can make plays with his legs. This time around Dixon will not be on as short of leash as he was in Baltimore as he has had more preparation time and also has a capable backup on sideline in Charlie Batch. If you remember back to last year, Tyler Palko was signed earlier in the week to fill that role with both Roethlisberger and Batch out with injuries. Dixon needs to just do what he does best and if that means taking off and running instead of forcing the ball, so be it. Hopefully offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will also get Dixon moving out of the pocket to take advantage of his mobility and help give him clearer passing lanes. If things go right, Dixon will not need to use his arm much at all and I could see yardage numbers less than 200 yards on the day and still coming out with the win.
Run Rashard Run - A great running game will do wonders on Sunday, especially when you have inexperience at quarterback. The Steelers offensive line features a rookie center in Maurkice Pouncey and a converted free agent right tackle in Flozell Adams. Pouncey can move meat in the middle and this line combined with multiple tight ends, should be able to open up running lanes for running back Rashard Mendenhall. A good start on the ground will also slow down the rush on the ends. The Falcons weakest part of their defensive line and linebacking crew is up the middle. Jonathan Babineaux, will not be suiting up and Peria Jerry will make his first start since his knee injury last season. Trey Lewis and rookie Corey Peters also will get time inside. These guys can be moved and Mendenhall must get to the second level. 100 yard game and no fumbles will go a long way in winning this game. Mixing in Isaac Redman in a pony backfield would also keep the Falcons honest as well.
Ike Blankets Roddy - Falcons wide receiver Roddy White is the big play maker for the Falcons and very underrated. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor will likely draw most of the coverage against White on Sunday. White will try to lull Ike to sleep and then use a double move to get up open over the top for some big gainers. Taylor must try to keep Roddy in front of him and make him earn every catch and every yard. He must wrap him up instantly as White is not known to be that dangerous getting yards after the catch, but that does not make him any less dangerous as he has made it to the past two Pro Bowls. The Steelers will likely concentrate on the run and Michael Turner, so Taylor will be manned up one on one with occasional safety help.
Don\'t Let Gonzalez Go Gonzo - Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez needs just one catch to become the first tight end in league history to reach the 1,000 mark. I am fine if he gets just the one, maybe two. Strong safety Troy Polamalu will get quite a few chances of running with Gonzalez on Sunday and give the rehabbed knee a strong work out. Gonzalez is not as fast as he once was, but still can get vertical and get separation. He is deadly in the redzone as a target as well. a big day by Gonzalez on the stat sheet and the Steelers will likely be on the losing side of the scoreboard.
Protecting The Edges - The Steelers offensive line will be the most vulnerable on the edges as up and coming left defensive end Kroy Biermann will work against new right tackle Flozell Adams and the dangerous right defensive end John Abraham will be attacking Steelers left tackle Max Starks. The Steelers will likely need to give Starks help by chipping on Abraham with a running back or a second tight end. Both Biermann and Abraham get good pushes and as mentioned earlier can be slowed down with a good running game. 3rd and longs will allow both to tee off on the pass rush and must be kept off of Dixon.
Heathhhhhhhh - Steelers tight end Heath Miller could be the unsung hero through these first 4 games. Miller is the perfect all purpose tight end and will look to singled up on rookie Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon or strong safety Erik Coleman. Miller ought to have plenty of room to work in the middle of the field and could be a safety valve of sorts for Dixon in the passing game.
Make Michael Turn Her Outside - Falcons running back Michael Turner is a power inside runner that loves to run down hill headed north. Casey Hampton, Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior must plug the gaps and try to force Turner outside and to the corners. He is more dangerous as a game goes on and despite his size is still quick up the middle. The last thing you want is to have the corners and safeties having to bring him down. Timmons and Farrior must shed their blocks quickly and get solid licks in on Turner. Having Larry Foote rotate in should allow all the inside backers to stay fresh. The Falcons will run first to set up the pass and they must be forced into obvious 3rd and long passing downs.
Steelers Falcons Game Prediction - I am the eternal Steelers optimist, even in the 80\'s. The Steelers being a dog in this game at home is dangerous for the Falcons and I love it. They have been downplayed ever since the Roethlisberger suspension was announced, but yet get back Polamalu and Aaron Smith on defense. If Dixon is used like I think he will be and the Steelers are able to establish the running game, they will be able to shorten the game tremendously and take the burden off of Dixon. The Steelers starting defensive unit looked good in the preseason and only gave up two touchdowns, both on the ground. As long as no turnovers on offense occur and the Dixon plays within himself and does not make stupid mistakes, I think the Steelers can win this one in a close game.
Final Score: Steelers 20 Falcons 17