(Sports Network) – WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Turner (871 rushing yards, 10 TD, 5 receptions) was an absolute difference- maker in the Falcons’ surprising 2008 performance, with the powerful back ripping off 1,699 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns to earn All-Pro honors, but injuries and fitness issues rendered him far less an impact player last season. Since Atlanta is 10-2 when Turner has eclipsed the 100-yard mark during his two-year tenure with the organization, it’s imperative that the club gets its workhorse untracked. The less effective running game caused Ryan (2916 passing yards, 22 TD, 14 INT) to carry a larger burden on the offense, and the level-headed quarterback’s overall production took a dip from his terrific Rookie of the Year campaign as a result. The offense can be awfully hard to stop when firing on all cylinders, though, with Turner able to churn out chunks of yards on ground and Ryan firing precision passes to two elite receiving options in wideout Roddy White (85 receptions, 1153 yards, 11 TD) and perennial Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez (83 receptions, 6 TD). The Falcons will likely be without starting split end Michael Jenkins (50 receptions, 1 TD) for the opener due to a shoulder injury, with savvy veteran Brian Finneran (11 receptions) the top candidate to man that spot alongside White and shifty slot receiver Harry Douglas.
After leading the NFL in virtually every major category during the team’s championship run of 2008, the Steelers defense couldn’t quite sustain that level of excellence last season. The unit was hardly a liability, however, ranking fifth overall in yards allowed (305.3 ypg) and third against the run (89.9 avg) while generating a healthy 47 sacks, and there’s room for improvement now that Polamalu (20 tackles, 3 INT) and lynchpin end Aaron Smith (9 tackles, 2 sacks) are back healthy after missing most of last year. Pittsburgh has allowed only one individual 100-yard rusher over its last 34 regular-season contests, largely because of the work of Smith and sturdy nose tackle Casey Hampton (43 tackles, 2.5 sacks) in the trenches, while 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (79 tackles, 10 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (62 tackles, 13.5 sacks) form one of the league’s premier pass-rushing outside linebacker tandems. The secondary was a bit of a sore spot last year, but the return of Polamalu and re-addition of cornerback Bryant McFadden (69 tackles, 15 PD), acquired in a draft-day trade with Arizona, could shore up that area.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh has leaned on Roethlisberger as much as any team in the NFL at the quarterback spot over the past few years, but won’t ask Dixon (145 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) to be anything more than an efficient game-manager during his time under center. The former University of Oregon standout did display good accuracy in the preseason and possesses excellent mobility, an asset when playing behind a line that gave up 50 sacks last season. He’ll have a strong support system in place as well, as Mendenhall (1108 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 8 TD) is a capable lead back and both prolific wide receiver Hines Ward (95 receptions, 6 TD) and Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller (76 receptions, 6 TD) really know how to get open. The Steelers did part ways with skilled but troublesome wideout Santonio Holmes during the offseason, but sophomore Mike Wallace (39 receptions, 6 TD) came through with a strong rookie season and seems ready to step in and fill the void. Tomlin wants to become more physical at the point of attack, and may have gotten his wish with the addition of highly-regarded rookie center Maurkice Pouncey and veteran right tackle Flozell Adams to a revamped front wall.
Dixon will be facing an Atlanta defense that was rather generous to enemy quarterbacks a year ago, surrendering an average of 242.1 passing yards per game (28th overall) and 25 touchdowns through the air. That poor showing prompted the signing of Robinson (64 tackles with Houston), a high-caliber cover man who should provide an instant upgrade to a secondary that also contains a budding star in third-year free safety Thomas DeCoud (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT). Seasoned sack-master John Abraham (35 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and fellow end Kroy Biermann (49 tackles, 5 sacks) will be in charge of applying the heat to the Steelers’ inexperienced quarterback, but the duo may miss the inside presence of tackle Jonathan Babineaux (47 tackles, 6 sacks), the team’s sack leader in 2009 who’ll sit out Sunday’s test for a personal conduct policy violation. Rookie Corey Peters, a third-round pick out of Kentucky, is expected to fill in, with Weatherspoon joining a solid linebacking group that also includes third-year stalwart Curtis Lofton (133 tackles) in the middle and 12th-year man Mike Peterson (109 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) on the weak side. Those two helped the Falcons finish a respectable 10th in run defense (106.8 ypg) last season.