For those of you new to NPC, every Friday I like to present a little segment called “Know Thy Enemy.” I take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers upcoming opponent and attempt (badly) to guess as to how the two teams match up. So without further ado…
In trying to follow their surprising playoff run of 2008, Atlanta gave it a good effort last year but came up short. The Falcons started 4-1 before losing six of their next eight games. They won their final three to finish 9-7 but by then it was too little too late. They had a productive off season addressing some of the holes on their team and under coach Mike Smith should be in the NFC playoff mix again this season.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs. FALCONS OFFENSE
Atlanta ranked 16th in offense last year but fell from second in rushing in 2008 to 15th. Therefore, one can pretty much assume RB Michael Turner missing five games with a sprained ankle had a large effect on their offensive efficiency. The Burner seems primed and ready to go this season so the Steelers had better be prepared to deal with a healthy dose of him toting the rock.
QB Matt Ryan enters his third season as a pro with a 20-11 record as a starter and a 38/25 career TD/INT ratio. Losing Turner no doubt contributed to Matty Ice’s sophomore slump. Much like Joe Flacco, Ryan is one of the NFL’s young guns looking to make that jump to the next level in his junior year.
Also like the Ravens, the team is attempting to help their young quarterback by giving him an ever expanding range of weapons in the pass game. Veteran TE Tony Gonzalez can still go. WR Rowdy Roddy White is one of the best big-play wideouts in the game. The Dirty Birds have had trouble finding a good option to draw heat away from him but may have found something in second year man Harry Douglas, who will play a slot role similar to what Mike Wallace did for us last year.
The Falcons may not do anything spectacularly but they do a little of everything well. So this will be a nice test for the Steelers D, which had trouble in almost all areas last year. A healthy Aaron Smith will help the run defense immensely. Lawrence Timmons looked better at shooting the gaps during the preseason. Plus Larry Foote was always a very good run stopper in the base defense. Hopefully, the days when no back ever rushed for 100 against us will return.
The secondary and linebackers will be tested with White and Gonzalez. Last year, the team got killed down the middle because James Farrior couldn’t run with TEs but hopefully some combination of Timmons, Farrior, and Foote will do better this year. Slot receivers would also torture our safeties. Well, we have a safety by the name of Troy Polamalu back now and his presence seems to make everybody else look much much better.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs. FALCONS DEFENSE
Speed, speed, and more speed. The Falcons defense is built to be fast and athletic. They’re anchored by MLB Curtis Lofton and DE John Abraham, one of the best pure pass rushers in the game. The return of DT Peria Jerry will solidify the run defense and Abraham may finally get some bookend help rushing the passer from either Koury Biermann or Lawrence Sidbury…or both.
The Falcons did a lot of work this off season upgrading the defense. First, by drafting rookie LB Sean Weatherspoon, who was the highest rated ‘backer on many draft boards. He’s a sideline-to-sideline weapon who’ll run all over the field making plays. The other major acquisition was signing CB Dunta Robinson to a six year $57 million contract. Robinson, a huge upgrade to a suspect secondary, spent the past few years dealing with Peyton Manning as a member or the Texans so you know he has experience playing against the highest caliber of opposition.
Robinson has already stated he’s worried about facing Dennis Dixon and would have preferred to see Charlie Batch starting Sunday:
"“Dennis Dixon, in his start last year, looked real good,” Robinson said. “Everybody gives you something different. With Dixon, you have a versatile quarterback. You hate playing against quarterbacks that can get out of the pocket. That’s one of the things that defenses hate the most.”"
As you may have heard, Sunday marks the beginning of Dixon’s four game stint as starting quarterback for the Black and Gold. We’ve analyzed him to death on this website the past month so there’s no point in chewing our cabbage a fifth time. Suffice to say, he’s a young player with all the young player tendencies. He made dumb mistakes in his lone preseason appearance with the first team offense but I chalk that up to him being told “You have to impress us” and forcing the issue. The job is his and I doubt Mike Tomlin would have a quick hook unless an absolute disaster occurred so that should allow Dixon to relax and play his game.
Rashard Mendenhall will be the workhorse if the Steelers are to be successful. Just like in the Baltimore game last year, the Steelers will have to return to Stillers Football if they want to succeed with their young QB. Bruce Arians is probably miffed that he won’t be able to dial up 55 idiotic pass plays but this team is truly better off when they run first and pass second. I expect Issac Redman to get a handful of carries in relief or as part of the two back Pony Backfield. It would be nice if either Red Zone or rookie Jon Dwyer can bring back the good old days when third and short were automatic first downs.
When Dix does pass, he’ll have Mike Wallace stepping into the role vacated by pothead woman-beater Santonio Holmes. Wallace isn’t as polished as Holmes but I think his big-play explosiveness may be greater. Antwaan Randle-El provides a stable good-hands target over the middle and I would expect rookie Emmanuel Sanders to see some action in the slot. The criminally underrated Heath Miller and future HOFer Hines Ward provide plenty of veteran stability.
The reason I’ve been on Team Dixon from the start, besides my unapologetic worship of Kordell Stewart, is our offensive line. I’ve seen precious little this preseason which leads me to be it’ll be significantly better than in previous years. Maurkice Pouncey entrenched at center should help our running game because LBs won’t knife up the middle on every off-tackle play. But Flozell Adams has shown problems with speed rushers all off-season and the Falcons have a couple good ones. Thankfully, we’ll have a QB who can move away from a collapsing pocket and make something out of nothing with his mobility. If nothing else, Dix’s presence will help the team by turning three or four 9 yard sacks into minimal gains because he can get away from pressure.
The Falcons are a playoff quality team. How the Steelers fare against them this weekend will go a long way to answering whether they deserve to share that designation as well.