By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Atlanta Falcons had the 28th-ranked pass defense in the NFL last season, so Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon ought to whet his lips with anticipation to face them Sunday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.
But Dixon predictably isn’t concerned with the past. He’s excited about his second NFL start this week and looking to the future, as he prepares for four games as a starter for the Steelers while Ben Roethlisberger is suspended.
“I don’t look at the past history,” Dixon said. “I look at the Atlanta Falcons as being one of the best teams ever, and I want to be able to execute the plays and just take what the defense gives me regardless if it’s a pass or a run.
“I always try to be on an even keel. (I try) never (to be) too high and never (to be) too low. I try to make sure that I have tremendous confidence in every play that goes in, and we’ll go from there.”
With second-game starter Dixon and first-game starter Maurkice Pouncey at quarterback and center, respectively, their most inexperienced players, the Steelers have a tough matchup against the Atlanta defensive line and tackles Trey Lewis and Peria Jerry. Pouncey is strong and athletic enough, but Lewis and Jerry are tough run-stoppers.
Defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann also are pass-rushing threats for Steelers offensive tackles Max Starks and Flozell Adams. With Chris Kemoeatu and Trai Essex at guard helping out, the Steelers should be able to help Pouncey and the tackles, protect Dixon and block for Rashard Mendenhall.
“They have a good D-line,” Pouncey said. “It’s going to be a great matchup for our O-line, and we’re all looking forward to it. I’m really excited about it. This is my first start, and I’m ready to go.”
The success of Pouncey and Dixon, in particular, will be strong mitigating factors in the Steelers’ success on offense. But Mendenhall, tight end Heath Miller and wideouts Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Antwaan Randle El will have a lot to say about that as well.
Wallace’s matchup with new Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson will be crucial.
If Dixon can get the time to throw downfield to Wallace, presumably if he beats Robinson deep, could be a turning point in the game for the Steelers.
“He’s a real good corner,” Wallace said. “But they have another good one in Brent Grimes as well, so we have to know where they are at all times.”
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the Falcons’ No. 1 pick, might be a good matchup for Miller and the Steelers. But Miller, who earned his first Pro Bowl trip after last season and an offensive captain honor this year for he club, is a tough matchup for any opponent.
Defensively, the Steelers must contain running back Michael Turner, who could break a big run if not contained early.
“Oh, yeah, he’s a good back,” Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said. “He’s a tough runner, a guy who’s not easy to get down. But that quarterback, Matt Ryan, he’s the guy who makes that offense go. You have to contain him and not let him run around to much back there.”
Ryan completed better than 58 percent of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards last season with 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. And with game-breaking receivers like Roddy White, the Steelers’ secondary will have its hands full.
White and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez caught 85 and 83 passes, respectively, last fall. White had more than 1,100 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, while Gonzalez tallied six scoring catches.
“I love those matchups against guys like Roddy White, the big-play guys,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “But he’s a great receiver, and I’m looking forward to going against him.”
Gonzalez is a big target and like his Steelers’ counterpart, Miller, he’s a tough matchup for opposing linebackers. James Farrior should get that job, and it’s one he’s struggled with at times in the red zone. That’s why safety Troy Polamalu also will provide assistance.
“Gonzalez is still a great tight end after all these years, and he’s always dangerous,” Polamalu said. “We have to be aware of him at all times.”
The same could be said about Polamalu. The Steelers are hopeful that after missing the majority of last season with two separate knee injuries, Polamalu is ready to be an impact player once again. Polamalu is feeling so good, in fact, that he has decided not to wear a knee brace during the game.
Polamalu’s health, along with Smith on the D-line, are two players who were sorely missed last season. Improvement by Lawrence Timmons at one inside linebacker spot is another crucial position for the Steelers.
“I expect to have bigger year than I’ve ever had because I’m healthy now,” Timmons said. “I had problems with both ankles last year, and that hampered me all season. But I’m healthy now and ready to have a big year.”
And ultimately, Timmons could be the Steelers’ toughest matchup for an opponent.