(Sports Network) – The Atlanta Falcons enter the 2010 NFL season brimming with optimism, while uncertainty surrounds the Pittsburgh Steelers in the aftermath of an offseason filled with trials and tribulations.
It’s also a time for opportunity, one which Dennis Dixon is hoping to make the most of.
The young quarterback gets his chance to stamp himself as the Steelers’ short- term answer at the position when the Black and Gold host the Falcons this Sunday in a season-opening interconference showdown between 2008 playoff participants that failed to meet expectations a year ago.
Still smarting from a disappointing 9-7 campaign that followed the franchise’s unprecedented sixth Super Bowl victory, the Steelers were further blindsided by the off-the-field actions of star signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger two months after the team concluded its 2009 season. The invaluable field general was investigated for sexual assault for an incident in a Georgia nightclub back in March, and while no charges were filed, the high-profile case drew Roethlisberger a four-game suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
With their regular triggerman unavailable until mid-October, the Steelers will pin their hopes this week on Dixon, an athletic but raw third-year pro whose only extensive game action came in a three-point road loss to rival Baltimore in late November of last season. Starting for an injured Roethlisberger, the 25-year-old both ran and threw for a touchdown while completing 12-of-26 passes for 145 yards against a stout Ravens’ defense.
While Dixon will get the nod for Sunday’s lid-lifter, he’s no guarantee to be directing the offense for all four games Pittsburgh will be without Roethlisberger. The Steelers do have a more experienced alternative in offseason addition Byron Leftwich, though the veteran will be sidelined for at least this game after spraining his left knee in the final exhibition test.
With an unproven commodity under center, Pittsburgh figures to rely heavily on talented running back Rashard Mendenhall, an 1,100-yard rusher in 2009, and a still-formidable defense that finished second in the NFL in sacks last season and will have a healthy Troy Polamalu on the field for Week 1. The All-Pro safety was limited to just five games last year due to a lingering knee injury.
Playing at Heinz Field could also help ease the burden on Dixon, as the Steelers have amassed an impressive 19-5 record in the Steel City during head coach Mike Tomlin’s three seasons at the helm. Pittsburgh has not lost a home opener since a 30-17 setback to Oakland in 2002.
While the long-suffering Falcons achieved an organizational first with last year’s 9-7 finish, marking the first back-to-back winning seasons in club history, that record still paled in comparison to the 11-5 mark Atlanta delivered in a stellar 2008 debut for head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan.
Injuries played a part in the Falcons’ dropoff, with Ryan missing nearly three full games with a turf toe problem and a high ankle sprain causing bruising running back Michael Turner to sit out five weeks. A porous defense that was particularly inept against the pass was also a factor, prompting general manager Thomas Dimitroff to sign shutdown corner Dunta Robinson to a hefty free-agent contract and use the team’s first-round choice in April’s draft on promising linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.