The Steelers chances to win on Sunday against the Falcons are more likely dependent on whether the defense to return to its overpowering form of two seasons ago than if Dennis Dixon exceeds his only other career start, a worthy performance in an overtime loss last season in Baltimore.
Dixon, however, can absolutely torpedo the Steelers' hopes in a hurry. Not to sounds overly pessimistic, but Dixon's woeful performance with the first team offense in the third preseason game did a lot to dash the stoked expectations that lingered since the November game in M&T Bank Stadium. Best case scenario is that the turd he laid in Denver turn out to be an instructive disaster that keeps Dixon from needlessly forcing passes on the opponent's side of the field, but until I actually see that materialize, I can't say I'm looking forward to anything but a conservative approach and maybe a few well executed scrambles and screens.
Some people, including Jerome Bettis, have argued that Charlies Batch should have been made the Week 1 starter because if Dixon struggles and is eventually pulled, it will have proven destructive to his confidence. That'd be a fine argument if Dixon were a rookie, but the guy is in his third year in the league. He's already started a critical game. At some point, you have to stop coddling and figure out what type of player you've got on your hands. Better to figure out now that Dixon is or is not capable of leading this team than string both the player and the organization on with faint hopes that he will develop at some undefined point in the future.
The Falcons come in missing Jonathan Babineaux and Michael Jenkins. Babineaux's absence due to suspension in particular helps the Steelers, as Rashard Mendenhall will have to be grind out regular four- and five-yards gains against stacked defensive fronts. Atlanta has Hugh Douglas ready to replace Jenkins and some people are of the opinion that Douglas is actually better than Jenkins anyway, so that doesn't pose any great benefit to the Steelers, except maybe the quality of slot receiver they've have to face in multi-receiver sets.
The Steelers are at home and have a nice string of Week 1 victories going, not having lost their opener since 2002. Atlanta is certainly more than capable of snapping that streak. The Falcons were similar to the Steelers last season: a talented team with expectations that was ultimately beset by critical injuries. And while they face a few absences, they aren't starting a quarterback, who, while talented, has shown in his brief experience to have a tendency for critical turnovers.
I'll be interested to see how much Bruce Arians opens up the playbook for Dixon or if the approach will be more or less identical to how the offense was run against the Ravens last year. Dixon has had another full off-season of work with the offense and far more time to prepare for the opposition than the few days he got last year before being forced to start at the last minute.
The Steelers defense has the capability to carry the team to victories in any of their first four weeks before Roethlisberger returns and I'm excited to watch them back at their attacking best with Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith back. The offense just has to get points when they are there, even if that means settling for threes. More importantly, Dixon and Mendenhall have to not commit turnover that could lead to Atlanta leads that the young QB probably can't come back from.