So we’ve studied every snap taken on Saturday night by Steelers “starting” quarterback Byron Leftwich and every snap taken by his presumed four-week understudy, Dennis Dixon. While we’re not yet ready to say that Dixon, not Leftwich, should lead the Pittsburgh offense during Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension (but we’re ready to think it), we believe it’s only fair that Dixon at some point get a crack at running with the ones in a preseason game, so that the team can assess whether he’s the better option to serve as Roethlisberger’s short-term replacement.
Part of the problem against the Lions was the inability of the Steelers’ starting offensive line to protect Leftwich, who was hurried by both defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril on Leftwich’s second attempt of the night, sacked another time when right tackle Flozell Adams pulled out his red cape, and generally looked hurried and harried and not the kind of guy he needs to be when the real games start.
Leftwich plays best when he makes his drop and instantly commences that windmill windup, releasing the ball quickly and decisively. If he holds it beyond a couple of seconds, a mid-range-to-deep ball likely will miss the mark, because Leftwich will be cranking the catapult as the pocket collapses. On a few occasions, he found a crease in the collapsed pocket and nimbly (by his normal standards) stepped up or aside to buy enough time to complete a short pass.
So if the line, which played a bit better once Adams was replaced by Jonathan Scott, can’t protect Leftwich, the starting offense will need a quarterback who can protect himself.
Enter Dixon, who has an impressive, effortless lateral burst, allowing him to escape trouble and buy time, like Roethlisberger does, only possibly more effectively. And when it’s time to turn on the gas vertically, Dixon arguably is the best running quarterback currently in the league.
All that said, we’ve got a feeling that the Steelers don’t want Dixon to play because they don’t want him to improve and they don’t want to have to put him on the bench once Roethlisberger is cleared to return and they don’t want to have to listen to Dixon’s agent complain that the one-time Heisman candidate could be the best option to help the Steelers win, even with Roethlisberger on the depth chart.
Though Dixon’s departure will be inevitable if the Steelers ultimately decide that Ben remains the long-term answer at the position, the inevitable could come a lot sooner if Dixon plays with the first string in the regular season the way he performed with the backups in the preseason on Saturday night.
So if Roethlisberger doesn’t play well in the last 12 games of the 2010 season, don’t be shocked if Big Ben gets the bum’s rush, just like the Eagles did when they realized that, if they didn’t find a way to elevate Kevin Kolb, they’d risk losing their chance at ensuring quality quarterback play deep into the current decade.