Pregame Zone Blitz: Dixon's Start Newsworthy, But Mendenhall is Key

And we're back...minor to moderate basement flooding along with an overabundance of actual work at my actual job delayed release of the fake season's editions of the Pregame Zone Blitz. The good news is  PZB's factories have moved to a new and drier location, ready to pump out the first edition of the 2010 season.

We've got QB questions, we've got a new look offensive line, and we've got plenty of young players looking to establish names for themselves. We're also going to get a look at one of the most underrated teams in the NFL in Week 1.

As you can see, we're dealin' with some pretty heavy stuff here. Let's get it on.

Per SB Nation Atlanta, WR Michael Jenkins won't play Sunday.

Adam Schultz of The Falcoholic points out the Falcons recent level of success after finishing 2-2 in the preseason.

Former Steelers TE and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey speaks with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This guy posting on the Falcons.com message board is really proud of himself and his message-board posting buddy. He should be. Didn't think jokes about Roethlisberger could get more cliché at this point.

The Steelers and Falcons are among the top of the league in most draft picks still on the 53-man roster.

Last Game

As you no doubt recall, the Steelers capped off a three-game winning streak by managing hang onto a fourth-quarter lead against Miami. There were some problems with that in 2009, but the win over the playoff-bubble-resting Dolphins was too little, and too late.

Former Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell signed off on the end of his career by wrapping both of his hands around his throat against Baltimore, thus resigning the Steelers to their second missed playoffs one season after a Super Bowl championship.

Still bitter.

It remains to be seen whether the fact the team looks completely different heading into 2010 is a good thing. Maurkice Pouncey's reign of domination begins Sunday in lieu of rollerskate blocker Justin Hartwig. Longtime veteran Flozell Adams takes over for the injured Willie Colon. Mike Wallace is the new split end, over the recreational drug using and former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin ran the ball quite a bit in the preseason, and RB Rashard Mendenhall will be given every chance to become a breakout player in his third season.

The defense? Simple. SS Troy Polamalu is back, and healthy. Will Gay moves back to his nickel role, in which he excelled in 2008, again backing up veteran Bryant McFadden.

But Troy's back. Let's be honest, there is no other story than the return of the only player in the league with an insurance policy on his hair.

You never know when you could be the victim of a random head-shaving drive-by attack.

 

James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley still make up the best pass-rushing tandem in the league, but PZB is predicting this is the year of Lawrence Timmons.

As SteelerBro crowed during the preseason game against the Giants, after Timmons chased down a running back from across the field, he's so explosive and so incredibly athletic, he's going to begin reacting in real time, instead of needing an extra second to read the play. It's going to be a big year for Mr. Timmons. Put it on the board.

Plenty of reason for optimism this year. To be fair, there's plenty of reason for doubt, too. This is why we love the NFL, though. The sense of anticipation we're all feeling right now. I'm choosing to be excited about everything.

Opponent Spotlight: FS Thomas DeCoud

It's easy to look at Atlanta's triumvirate of offensive explosion and assume it's the focal point of an opponent's game. Stopping QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner and WR Roddy White is a handful, but the key player the Steelers will have to contain is primed for primetime third-year safety, DeCoud.

In his first year starting, he put together pretty solid numbers, and while he struggled at times in pass coverage, he has a nose for the ball, which will serve the Falcons defense well, considering the likelihood of Pittsburgh rushing 40 times.

His over-aggression is exploitable, as was seen a few times last season, but with a year of reflection and training for his second year as a starter, DeCoud has nowhere to go but up. And "up" for him will land him in the Pro Bowl.

Steelers Spotlight:  RB Rashard Mendenhall

Bet you thought this was gonna be Dennis Dixon, huh? Nope. Double-D no doubt has his place in Sunday's game plan, but the key, the engine if you will, is Rocket Rashard's ability to accept and fill his role as the leader of the offense's production.

The Steelers told Coach Mike Tomlin they wanted the running game emphasized. The drafting and subsequent promotion of rookie C Maurkice Pouncey indicates they want to run the ball more consistently. It starts in Week 1.

Atlanta had a fairly tough run defense last season, finishing 10th overall, allowing just over 106 yards per game. Mendenhall ran for an impressive 4.6 yards per carry in his first full season as a pro, and with him go the Steelers hopes of re-establishing themselves as a ground-and-pound power franchise.

The Falcons and defensive-minded coach Mike Smith are poised to be a breakout team in their own right in 2010. They'll do that through a stingy defense that will be complimented by their own ability to run the ball. Mendenhall and the revamped Steelers offensive line have been asked a lot going into this season, and their response to that request will be key to the Steelers' prevailing in Week 1.

I See You

I see you, Dennis Dixon. I saw your less-than-heartwarming spring campaign, in which coach Tomlin gave veteran Byron Leftwich the starting job for the duration of Ben Roethlisberger's suspension. Your performance in shells in 7-on-7 drills should not be the determining factor in such a position, but instead of complaining about not getting a chance to compete in pads in July, you refused to accept your performance, and worked your tail off to prepare for training camp.

You did. Boy, did you ever. After fantastic performances in the team's first two preseason games, you had plenty of people (including us) clamoring for a start at Denver for Fake Game No. 3.

I'm sure you weren't happy with your performance either, but you again took responsibility and began putting it behind you. It was obvious Leftwich was going to start in Week 1 after the Denver game, but you still prepared yourself to succeed.

Smart people tend to do that. When Leftwich went down with injury, some people even said Charlie Batch would leapfrog you and grab the starting spot. Tomlin said no, and that you, not the cagey veteran Batch, will lead this team on the Heinz Field turf for perhaps the most important Week 1 game the Steelers have had since 2002.

Your calm, poise and athleticism will help the offense do their part in what's likely to be the hardest fought game of the first week of 2010. PZB has faith in you.

Key Stats

  • Pittsburgh hasn't lost a home-opener since 2002 (at New England).
  • Maurkice Pouncey will be the first rookie to start for the Steelers since Heath Miller in 2005.
  • Atlanta has finished 2-2 in the playoffs six out of the last seven years.
  • Pittsburgh's offensive and defensive coordinators from 2001-2003 now coach for the Falcons - secondary coach Tim Lewis and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey
  • Both Pittsburgh and Atlanta finished last season with three consecutive wins to finish 9-7, just missing the playoffs.

Quick-Hitters

Announcement: Thanks to Keith Thomas, author of Steel Curtain Rising, for the newest addition to the PZB catalog. Starting in Week 2, a tally will be posted in this column space counting each hold of OLB James Harrison that wasn't called. I'm still looking to confirm whether the technical specs of the site will allow a three-digit figure, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it (probably by Week 8).

I would like to host a contest of sorts to name this feature, so anyone with a short, witty, tongue-in-cheek sting on the league for their lack of enforcement of the holding penalty when it comes to players who can destroy the quarterback, post them in the comments below this space.

Act of Solidarity: While it was touching to see members of the Vikings and Saints simultaneously walk onto the field, index fingers extended in an act of unity in their labor battle with the league, the message would have been stronger had they been, you know, unified. Maybe I missed it (and Anti-Steeler Friend Chuck wouldn't rewind the DVR), but it didn't seem many members of either team joined in. Apparently, the union reps for both teams decided to do the finger in the air thing, and they hope it will catch on. This is an image-first generation and league, and they looked kind of tool-ish. Not sure how far they'll get, but there will be some who do it, and some who won't. Way to divide your ranks, guys.

Easy Eddie Vs. The Machine: Not sure what the deal is between Ed Bouchette and the Steelers, but odds are pretty good we won't hear anymore news this season about who's practicing with the first and second teams.

Some even mentioned First Amendment violations on the part of the team...which is laughable. Even so, friction between franchises and those who cover them always exists, and lines are drawn pretty thinly. Say what you will about which media outlets you enjoy or dislike, either way, it'd be a shame to have Bouchette, a Hall of Fame voter, on the sidelines for any stretch of time. Besides, the team didn't take umbrage with the fact that Tomlin announced Dixon would be the starter, even after saying repeatedly that he was going to play that card close to his chest.

Blah, Blah Blah...: Maybe it's the early morning fog that's descended upon PZB, but what the hell is either Rex Ryan or Ray Lewis saying in this back-and-forth? They're both setting records for clichés used in one media event. On and on with your broken record spiel, guys, whatever happened to "shut up and play?"

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