Defense, not Dixon, controls fate of game
Dennis Dixon was talking through his final media scrum of the work week, channeling a quiet confidence and with no rhetorical missteps, even as some mischievous teammates approached the minicam perimeter to mug and tantalize the inexperienced starting quarterback.
As the fresh protagonist of the Steelers' still-evolving story line, Dixon's relationship with scrutiny only intensified as the opener against the Atlanta Falcons drew within hours. If you didn't know better, you'd think the 25-year-old Californian had the whole football world in his hands, or, at least, that part of it that will determine whether Pittsburgh starts 1-0 or 0-1.
Of course, you know better.
You know that while Mike Tomlin's offense gets analyzed industrially just because it's only now completing an offseason that was part sleazy reality show, part hospital drama, part blunt slapstick rated PG13 for drug references, the defense has gone about its work in relative solitude.
Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith, two of Dick LeBeau's most-destructive agents, have returned to health, which happens to be the main SteelersNation counterargument for why the club will not collapse despite all the important pieces that have broken off the offense.
That assumes, however, that a healthy LeBeau defense is up to any task just by its very appearance on the Heinz Field lawn. That defense makes no such assumptions. If you ask James Farrior what today is all about, for example, he's not thinking Dennis Dixon.
"It starts with Michael Turner," Farrior said after practice Friday. "He's so fast to the hole, with that low center of gravity; it takes a lot of tacklers to bring him down."
There's some dispute, apparently, over exactly how much of Michael Turner there is right now.
"He's a true bowling ball," said cornerback Bryant McFadden of Atlanta's head-banging feature back. "He's 5-10, 250, and, as a corner coming up on that, well, I've got to bring every bit of my 195."
The Falcons always have listed Turner at 244, whether he was scoring 17 touchdowns and gaining 1,699 rushing yards for them in 2008, or mostly clomping back and forth from the training room while playing in only 11 games last year.
There is reportedly less of him this year, the result of an augmented training regimen, but Turner's primary impact likely will remain evident.
"He's just a good, hard runner," Farrior said.
So, while the construct of LeBeau's plan will have a familiar baseline -- stop Turner and pressure quarterback Matt Ryan -- the total package will include most or all the defensive coordinator's often ornate flourishes.
"There are quite a few wrinkles," said McFadden, who spent last year with the Arizona Cardinals but returned to find the LeBeau product continuing to change. "He's always trying to put us into positions to be successful. This week, it's elaborate, very precise, and he's really stressing communication."
In the final 11-on-11s this week, defensive backs in particular were turning to bark at each other at recognition, especially in the various subpackages, a clear indication that the Steelers' defense had changed from preseason vanilla to that Sunday seasonal special, double chocolate rocky road.
"We'll do what we do, sure, but he's really put together a great game plan," Farrior said. "Normally, there are four or five new things from one season to the next, and then maybe the same number from game to game. But everyone knows it has to start with what to do about Turner, and how to get pressure on the quarterback."
The more pressure on Ryan, obviously, the briefer his opportunities to deliver the ball in stride to Sharod Lamor (Roddy) White, the Pro Bowl wideout who generally has been good for 80 or more catches a year totaling 1,000 or more yards, or to Hall of Famer-in-waiting Tony Gonzalez, who is hoping today is the day his Twitter contest ends.
That is the one where you follow the Falcons' tight end on Twitter, and tweet the reason you deserve to win two tickets to a Falcons game the moment he makes his 1,000th career catch. He's at 999.
The winner gets an autographed glove involved in the catch and also gets to hang out with Tony and re-enact the catch next weekend. Does it include the part where Polamalu knocks him into the third row? Does Troy get to go?
See the official contest rules.
It will be pretty hard to keep Gonzalez from grabbing at least one, but it is not out of the question that the Steelers could send the Falcons home still looking for their first win of 2010. Should that happen, I get the feeling it will have more to do with Farrior and Friends than with whatever becomes of Dennis Dixon.
First Published September 12, 2010 12:00 am