First, a disclaimer:
The case I'm about to make for Dennis Dixon to be the Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback while Ben Roethlisberger serves his suspension is not based solely on the young scrambler's terrific performance in Saturday's preseason route of the Detroit Lions. That would be overreacting.
Even so, what went down at Heinz Field this weekend demonstrated the reasons Dixon is the best choice for the Steelers in Roethlisberger's absence.
Byron Leftwich ran the first-team offense ahead of Dixon on Saturday night and has received most of the first-team reps in training camp. Under the pressure of a Ndamukong Suh-less defensive front, the veteran quarterback failed to get rid of the ball quickly enough, taking an eight-yard loss on a sack - thanks, Flozell Adams! - and getting knocked around repeatedly.
This should come as no surprise, given two unfortunate facts:
- Leftwich is a statue and has an incredibly slow release.
- Pittsburgh's pass protection is, to put it kindly, not the league's best.
After all, even Roethlisberger has been sacked an average of over three times per game in the last four seasons. That number would likely be higher if not for his abilities to break tackles and scramble away from the pass rush. So it's no wonder Leftwich stunk it up on Saturday, even against a Lions defense that mustered a mere 26 sacks in 2009, the fourth-fewest in the league. In the Steelers' first two series with Leftwich leading the offense, Pittsburgh's starters manage 16 yards on 12 plays. Leftwich finished the game with 4.3 yards per attempt. Against the Lions.
Dixon, by contrast, recorded a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3. He threw two beautiful strikes to wideouts Arnaz Battle and rookie standout Antonio Brown and managed a sneaky, slick run (eight of his 31 yards on the ground) in the red zone that nearly resulted in a touchdown.
Dixon looked patient but decisive. He made accurate throws on the run and kept his vision downfield, opting to tuck it and run only when viable options through the air failed to present themselves. The film doesn't lie.
Granted, Dixon was working against the Lions' second-stringers. But the same goes for the Steelers he was working with.
But again, I'm not making this argument simply because Dixon looked good in limited action in a preseason game. There are other elements to this position battle that the Steelers brass will undoubtedly consider in the coming weeks.
The 2010 season is Dixon's last under contract with the Steelers; he'll become a restricted free agent in 2011. I don't think the contract situation, all by itself, is necessarily a reason to select Dixon over Leftwich. But I think that if Mike Tomlin is on the fence, he has to side with evaluating Dixon. Regardless of how well the Steelers weather Hurricane Roethlisberger, the franchise needs to figure out if they want to keep Dixon as their long-term backup, or possibly as trade bait.
If Dixon shines in Pittsburgh's four or six games this season, why wouldn't a team like the Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, or Jacksonville Jaguars offer the Steelers some juicy draft picks, much like the Houston Texans offered the Atlanta Falcons for Matt Schaub in 2007? (Of course, the Falcons traded the wrong guy, but they still received two second-round picks and a jump up the first round. Not bad for your second-string passer. And besides, they got the whole quarterback thing right eventually.) So not only does Dixon's skill set give the Steelers the best chance to win in 2010, there are some potential future bonuses to throwing him in the fire, as well.
Don't be surprised if Tomlin gives the young quarterback some quality reps with the first-team unit in camp -- or a preseason start, which would really signal a full-blown quarterback controversy. If you ask me, though, there's nothing controversial about the Steelers quarterback situation. The best choice is crystal clear.
Leftwich might possibly have the higher floor - but he can't touch Dixon's ceiling, his upside. To adapt a classic burn from Winston Churchill, eventually Dixon will shed the label of "inexperienced," but Leftwich will always be helpless in the Steelers' flimsy pocket. That's why Dixon should be under center in Week 1.