With training camp less than two months away, let's start breaking down each and every positional battle that will take sort itself out when the Pittsburgh Steelers open their 2010 training camp in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
Let's begin with the most scrutinized and celebrated position in all of sports - the quarterback.
In the days leading up to the 2010 NFL Draft, the rumor mill was in full swing about the possibility of the Pittsburgh Steelers trading their two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers may have entertained the idea of doing so, but ultimately before the draft had officially commenced, the Rooney family had issued a statement saying that the Steelers had no intention of trading Big Ben and would be giving him one final opportunity to get his act together off the field.
Since the announcement of his six game suspension, which he stated he would not challenge, Big Ben has done and said all the right things. Pending no future shenanigans as well as exemplary adherence to the rehabilitation process laid out by the NFL, Roethlisberger's suspension could be reduced to four games. Returning Big Ben to the fold after four games rather than six is preferable for obvious reasons, but one worth noting is that Pittsburgh's BYE week happens to come in Week 5. That means Roethlisberger could conceivably return in Week 6 having had two weeks to work with his offensive teammates. When he finally does return, be it after four or six games, he'll face intense scrutiny from the league office, not to mention unforgiving loud-mouthed fans in opposing stadiums.
While Ben sits to start the year, the Steelers will turn to either Dennis Dixon or Byron Leftwich (or both) to lead the offense.
- Byron Leftwich
- Dennis Dixon
How Leftwich Wins The Job
Leftwich holds several key advantages over Dixon. The most important of course is his experience. Lefwich, despite not having played much the past three seasons, has seen just about everything there is to see in the NFL. Okay, that may be overstating it a little bit. But Leftwich has started 49 NFL games compared to Dixon's one. He's led a team to the playoffs, seen countless blitz and coverage packages, and experienced the highs and the lows of life as a veteran NFL quarterback.
Simple logic would suggest that Lefwich wins the opening day duties as a result of his superior experience. That's assuming of course that he proves himself capable of making all the requisite throws and reads during camp and the preseason. Leftwich has never been lacking in arm strength. He throws an impressively hard ball when he has time to set his feet, wind up and step into a throw. The concern with Leftwich has always been his lack of mobility, and consequently being exposed to big hits and subsequent injuries. Leftwich has never started more than 14 games in a regular season (2004).
How Dixon Wins The Job
Dixon's best chance at securing the Week 1 starting job is during the preseason. It will be hard for him to distance himself from Leftiwch during training camp. At least for the most part. Quarterbacks aren't exposed to legit pressure during camp for understandable reasons. In my mind, that means Lefty just needs to demonstrate a comprehensive command of Bruce Arians' offense - which he'll do having been exposed to it two years ago - and exhibit some arm strength and throwing acumen.
When the Steelers face real competition, or at least as real as preseason action gets, Dixon may have a chance to prove he has more upside than Leftwich and can be trusted to lead the Steelers' offense for the first month of the season. The second and third preseason games are always the most intense, so I really don't see the upside in Mike Tomlin naming a starter before then.
Also In The Mix
I suppose I should mention that Charlie Batch was re-signed for what would be his fitth season in the Black & Gold if he were to break camp. Barring multiple injuries in training camp, the preseason or early in the regular season before Big Ben returns, Batch will not see the field during the 2010 regular season. As Steeler Nation knows well, Batch's value lies in his ability to mentor and teach, not produce at 35 years of age.
I personally think - or perhaps it's more like I hope - that Dixon wins the job when it's all said and done. I simply think he'll establish himself as the better of the two quarterbacks before early September. That's no knock on Leftwich really. By all accounts, he's looked in shape and fairly sharp thus far this spring. Dixon however provides much more upside and valuable versatility. If the Steelers are in fact serious about re-establishing their identity as a running football team, they'd be better off having Dixon in the backfield with Rashard Mendenhall. If nothing else, the occasional misdirection keep by Dixon would force linebackers to stay home on him for a crucial split second. Any advantage you can get in a league with such ridiculous and viscous athletes on defense is huge and must be taken advantage of.
Perhaps more importantly, and I believe Dale Lolley mentioned this in a somewhat recent post on his blog NFL From The Sidelines - Byron Leftwich has proven he's capable of stepping up in a pinch, with minimal or even no preparation. He did so against the Washington Redskins in the middle of the '08 season when Big Ben was sidelined for the second half with a shoulder injury. Big Ben had looked abysmal all half, and Leftwich immediately sparked the Steelers offense. He connected on a gorgeous 50 yard bomb to Nate Washington on his first throw of the night and ultimately led the Steelers past the 'Skins for a much needed November road win.
Bottom line is Lefwich can easily be inserted in Weeks 2, 3 or 4 if Dixon were to struggle. He's proven that he can perform without needing a full week of practice with the first unit, as well as manage whatever psychological issues that accompany perceiving oneself as a starter or a reserve. Dixon meanwhile may benefit from knowing that he will be the starter and the extra practice sessions leading up the gameday that go along with it.
I say let Dixon start the home opener against the Atlanta Falcons. I think the following week's game - the first road game of the year against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - determines who starts Weeks 3 and 4. Regardless of what happens in Week 1, judge Dixon on what happens in Week 2 on the road. If he wins, let him start at Tennessee the following week. If he struggles in defeat in Week 2, insert Leftwich in Week 3. We know he's plenty capable of delivering on short notice.