The Steelers find themselves in a quandary at the most important position on the field. While Ben Roethlisberger serves what will probably be a four-game suspension, the quarterback job in Pittsburgh will go to Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon -- or possibly a combination of both.
Let’s examine the strengths and weaknesses of each passer and let’s also consider which player makes the Steelers the better team during that first month.
Leftwich is the known commodity. That is good, but mostly bad. He has a big, strong body and is extremely tough. Leftwich’s teammates respect him and his work ethic is very strong. He has a big-time throwing arm and there isn’t a throw that he can’t make. But he too often showcases that arm. Rarely does he throw the football with touch. By throwing the football so hard, his accuracy can be hit or miss and he doesn’t make his receivers’ job easier.
His windup and release are also extremely elongated. Although the ball comes out hot, it takes a long time for him to get rid of it once he decides to make the throw. Leftwich is also a statue in the pocket. He cannot elude the rush, which is an extra large problem considering the Steelers’ pass protection woes and his long release, which exposes him to fumbles within the pocket more so than most quarterbacks. At this point, what you see is what you get with Leftwich.
The opposite is true with Dixon. He remains an unknown. This again, is good ... bad. Dixon is talented. His running ability is extremely impressive and that playmaking ability with the ball in his hands is the first thing you notice with Dixon. He also has a big arm and can deliver the ball on the run or from improbable body positions. When playing with and facing backup players this preseason, Dixon has excelled. But as shown on Sunday night, Dixon can make poor decisions and force the action. This is a very common problem for talented young quarterbacks.
With Roethlisberger out of the lineup, Pittsburgh isn’t going to beat anyone by a huge margin. Games will be tight. The defense will have to play well -- which I fully expect. But huge mistakes (misread coverages or forced throws) are unacceptable for this organization. On Sunday night, Dixon cost his team points.
The Steelers have one more preseason game before making a final decision on the opening day starter. As it stands right now, I would start Dixon. That isn’t to say Leftwich couldn’t quickly enter a game or take over the starting job. Looking at the big picture isn’t necessarily the most important thing, but if all things are equal, Pittsburgh should want Dixon to win the job.
First off, he has upside. But secondly, if he performs well, Dixon could draw something substantial in a trade after the season. Clearly the starting job in Pittsburgh isn’t available for the long term.
But for the short term, I do think Dixon gives the Steelers the best chance of winning. He is harder to prepare for than Leftwich. His presence in the lineup also vastly enhances the running game. Of course, his ability to tuck it and run -- either according to script or as an improvisational ball carrier -- will help move the chains.
Playing man-to-man against the Steelers is tougher to pull off with Dixon in the lineup. But much like when Vince Young took over in Tennessee last season and Chris Johnson’s rushing totals went through the roof, it is harder to defend the running game from an alignment and assignment standpoint on defense. The contain defenders must respect the bootleg and can’t crash down on the inside run as hard. A strong running game will be imperative for Pittsburgh’s early-season success.
Dixon’s most recent mistakes are very worrisome. But that was just one game. Actually it was just a few quarters of play in the preseason. Dixon is the best call to be the opening-day starter.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.