I’m not sure how regular this will be as the season unfolds, but I’ll try to do one each week if I can. Since this is the first game of the season, I really don’t have any excuses not to do it. But I’m going to be looking at the different matchups that I like and don’t like as the Falcons prepare for the Steelers.
Matchups I Like
Dennis Dixon vs. the Falcons defense
I know many Falcon fans were worried about the possibility of Dixon starting this week instead of Byron Leftwich. They’d rather face the statue of Leftwich rather than the mobile Dixon.
I’m not too worried. Dixon will likely be able to make some plays with his legs, but his accuracy and decision making are the biggest areas of concerns for the Steelers offense. He has only had limited work with the first team offense, so he isn’t likely to be on the same page with most of his receivers. He is only making his second NFL start, so he will also be prone to making a lot of rookie mistakes. How he recognizes defense, how he sees the field, and whether he can make good decisions and put the ball on the money with accuracy to his receivers must be a major concern for the Steelers brass, otherwise they would not have been so reluctant to start him.
The Falcons will likely look to confine him to the pocket where he is going to be less dangerous. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and Erik Coleman will likely be a big reason why if the Falcons are able to take advantage, sitting back and reading Dixon’s eyes and breaking plays on the ball. The hallmark of young quarterbacks is a tendency to stare down his targets, which allows defensive backs, especially safeties a greater opportunity to jump routes and break up plays.
Steelers Right OL vs. Falcons Left DL
This matchup features rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard Trai Essex, and right tackle Flozell Adams versus the Falcons left side of their line which will feature mainly Kroy Biermann at left end, Peria Jerry at left tackle, and Jamaal Anderson splitting time at both spots.
Pouncey had a good summer, thus leading to the Steelers cutting incumbent starter Justin Hartwig. He is a big, physical center that is tailor made to go up against the bigger nose tackles of the AFC, but it’ll be interesting to see how he can deal with the line calls and manage the Falcons blitz, if defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder so chooses to call upon it. And it’s likely that he will. With Jonathan Babineaux out of the lineup, the Falcons will likely have a harder time generating pass rush and should dial up the blitz on occasion. Throw in the fact that quarterback Dennis Dixon is making his second start, he shouldn’t be too proficient in recognizing the calls.
Essex and Adams are the weakest link of the Steelers offensive line. Adams struggled throughout the preseason transitioning to the Steelers blocking scheme, and has been a marginal pass protector for much of the past five seasons while he was in Dallas. Essex struggled last year as a fill-in starter at right guard, but with Pouncey moving to center the Steelers have no choice but to keep him in the starting lineup.
This matchup is tailor made for Peria Jerry and Kroy Biermann to explode and have a big game. Biermann has found success against the bigger, slower right tackles of the league both in 2009 and this past preseason. He gave a good player like Vernon Carey plenty of fits last season in the opener, so Adams seems very susceptible to his quickness off the edge. Jerry likely has been chomping at the bit to get on the field and if he is to be an impact defender for the Falcons this year and in the coming years, he likely isn’t going to find an easier matchup than Essex.
Falcons ST vs. Steelers ST
Mainly this is due to the fact that the Steelers have had bad special teams for a number of years. They gave up four kickoff returns for touchdowns last year. They made some off-season moves to try and beef up the coverage and changed coaches. It remains to be seen how much improvement this unit has made.
Eric Weems isn’t the most explosive return threat in the league, but he is able to consistently pick up good yardage and for the most part doesn’t turn the ball over. Throughout much of last year, he was able to set up quite a few big scoring drives for the Falcons offense, and the team will likely rely on his ability to win field position battle to help.
Matchups I Don’t Like
Mike Wallace vs. Dunta Robinson
Robinson’s first action as a Falcon will likely having him draw the assignment of covering the Steelers most explosive receiver: Mike Wallace. Wallace is expected to fill in for Santonio Holmes this year at the split end position, and made a number of deep plays last season for the Steelers as their third receiver. The biggest obstacle for Wallace may be the guy throwing him the football rather than the guy that is covering him.
Chris Kemoeatu vs. Trey Lewis
Arguably the Steelers best offensive lineman is Chris Kemoeatu who is a big, physical run blocker. Expected to fill in for suspended Jonathan Babineaux is Trey Lewis. Lewis struggled throughout last season in run defense, and without significant improvement there, it leads to concern that it is a matchup the Steelers can exploit by running to the left side of their line. Kemoeatu has tended to have issues with quicker defensive tackles like Babineaux, but Lewis has not shown nearly that level of quickness to really think he can exploit that potential issue.
Troy Polamalu vs. Tony Gonzalez
The last time Gonzalez played the Steelers, he managed 3 catches for 15 yards. In that game in 2006, Troy Polamalu managed to have his season high of 10 tackles and 3 passes defended, as well as intercepting a pass and returning it 49 yards.
In 2008, when the Steelers played the San Diego Chargers with Polamalu in the lineup, Antonio Gates was limited to two catches for 10 yards. In 2009, with Polamalu out of the lineup, Gates exploded against the Steelers for 9 catches, 124 yards, and two touchdowns.
The honest truth is that with Gonzo being a lot less explosive than he was four years ago when he faced Polamalu is that he stands almost no chance of being an impact player this week.
Falcons OTs vs. Steelers OLBs
The last time the Falcons played a pair of 3-4 OLBs about on par with who the Steelers have, it was against Dallas in 2009 and they really struggled keeping Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware from being in Matt Ryan’s grill throughout the game. This week, they’ll face LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, arguably an even better pair than what they saw in Dallas last year. Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo will have their hands full. The hope is that if both Baker and Clabo are healthy, they should do better. Baker injured his ankle vs. Dallas last year, and it likely contributed to his poor game.
Todd McClure vs. Casey Hampton
Todd McClure has consistently struggled against big nose tackles throughout his career. And while Casey Hampton isn’t exactly known for his ability to create havoc in the backfield, if the Falcons are going to expect to run the ball effectively, McClure is going to have to control the line of scrimmage. That is something to date that he has not done, and it’s hard to think that even with Hampton’s advanced age, that is going to change this week.
Overall, you can see that there are more matchups that I don’t like than I do like, and that’s why I think the Steelers will win at home against the Falcons. I think it will be a hard-fought game, but I think the presence of Polamalu on the Steelers defense really makes that defense difficult to beat. I’m just not sure the Falcons offense will be able to generate enough points to beat the Steelers, even with them having question marks at quarterback and the offensive line.
The Steelers will likely rely on their running game, and without the team’s best run stopper in the lineup (Babineaux) that should be significantly easier to generate.
I think this game will likely have to play much the same way as the Jets matchup did a year ago. The truth was that the Falcons offense was incapable of scoring points against the Jets defense. And with Polamalu and Aaron Smith back in the lineup, the Steelers defense should be comparable to that Jets defense the Falcons faced.
The reason why the Falcons won that game is because they were able to force multiple turnovers that stopped Jets scoring drives and gave the offense a few more opportunities to put points on the board. The same thing will need to happen here. The Falcons are going to need to make Dennis Dixon look as green as Mark Sanchez did for much of last year and probably force a few turnovers. They will also need to stall the Steelers ground attack and prevent them from controlling the clock and grinding out a low-scoring victory.
The Steelers special teams has been historically weak for a number of years, and the Steelers made some off-season moves to try and fix that. Well, they should be tested here. If Eric Weems can give the Falcons offense good field position, that should also help quite a bit.
As you recall in that Jets game, the Falcons did almost nothing offensively until the fourth quarter. And that is where the Falcons will have an opportunity to win this one against the Steelers. Compared to Dixon, Matt Ryan is a savvy veteran that has experience performing in the clutch. If the Falcons at the least can keep it close until the fourth quarter, they should have a chance to win it on game-winning drive in the final minutes.