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Saturday, November 28, 2009
How Steelers might play minus Big Ben

By Matt Williamson, Scouts Inc.

The Steelers will face AFC North rival Baltimore on Sunday night without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) as starter. Instead, it will be the talented but supremely inexperienced Dennis Dixon leading Pittsburgh’s offense.

How does the Steelers’ game plan change?

The first thing that comes to mind, oddly enough, is Pittsburgh’s kickoff coverage, which has been abysmal this season. In this game more than any previous one, the Steelers will need to cover kickoffs properly, as they will not have the firepower on offense to overcome mishaps. Of course, Dixon has no power over how this will play out.

As for what actually ensues with Dixon behind center, the differences should be noticeable, as anyone would expect. While Roethlisberger is far from the most disciplined technician, his ability to recognize and manipulate coverage has improved dramatically of late. Dixon’s view will be much muddier. The Ravens are excellent at disguising their coverages, intentions and especially blitz packages, as they give the illusion of more rushers attacking the quarterback than actually are coming. Facing Baltimore’s defense can be very taxing mentally on an inexperienced quarterback.

But this defense is not as daunting as it was in the past. The loss of coordinator Rex Ryan has been felt in this regard, and because of the extreme weakness at the cornerback position, defensive play calling has been handcuffed. Regardless of who is behind center for Pittsburgh, wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes have a massive advantage over the Ravens’ starting corners, and that advantage increases even further when Pittsburgh uses three- and four-receiver sets to attack the Ravens’ suspect secondary depth. The worry here for Pittsburgh is that Dixon, in his first NFL start, will still need to identify the proper target and deliver the football accurately in a timely manner. That will determine the Steelers’ offensive success Sunday night.

There are ways to help this young quarterback. First of all, he is a tremendous runner with the ball in his hands. Pittsburgh would be wise to use designed movement by the quarterback to move the pocket, and to call designed runs for Dixon. Much like facing Vince Young in Tennessee, this will make playing man coverage much more difficult for Baltimore. Using Young as a model would be wise, as the Titans keep his mental responsibilities to a minimum, do not ask him to make elaborate reads and encourage him to run when the play doesn’t go to script.

Young also has done a great job of throwing to his backs and tight ends in the short and intermediate zones. Incorporating RBs Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore in the screen game would be wise for the Steelers as well. Both catch the ball well and calling screens will help slow Baltimore’s pass rush. TE Heath Miller is also a reliable weapon at Dixon’s disposal. Miller should consistently get favorable matchups against the Ravens’ heavier 3-4 linebackers. Things will go much more smoothly if Dixon can exploit the favorable matchups at his disposal with his excellent wide receivers.

The obvious response for the Steelers without Roethlisberger will be to lean more on the running game. That would be smart. Even against a usually stout defensive front, staying patient with Mendenhall is a must. Pittsburgh has one of the top defenses in the league, so scoring points will not come easy for the Ravens. Staying patient and dedicating themselves to running the football -- which can be problematic for offensive coordinator Bruce Arians at times -- is of paramount importance for the Steelers. It will establish a physicality that could lend to the Ravens’ defense -- which is dealing with injuries of its own -- wearing down late in what should be a close game. Also, a dedication to the ground attack would open up play-action options. Dixon does sell ball fakes well and the Steelers have a distinct advantage against Baltimore’s cornerbacks. But can Dixon exploit it?

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.