Did Tomlin Dodge a Bullet with Dixon?

“Mike Tomlin has the look of a head coach trapped by his own words. What, you ask might those words be?

‘We’ll let the play speak for itself.’

This came in response to the “what if’s” that surfaced almost immediately after the Steelers brought Bryon Leftwich in after Charlie Batch was injured in the summer of 2008.

After watching Sunday’s game in Denver, Tomlin might live to rue those words.

True to form, when Ben Roethlisberger got suspended, Pittsburgh went right to the red phone and brought back Byron Leftwich and installed him as the de facto starter.

Leftwich’s workman-like preseason performances stand in stark contrast to Dennis Dixon’s, who has been tearing it up. Dixon had a perfect passer rating against the Lions, and again distinguished himself against the New York Giants.

Calls from both the fans and the press came for Dixon to get a chance against Denver’s first string.

Tomlin refused to relent.

To be fair, there was nothing wrong with Leftwich’s performance in Denver. He did what you’d expect. When he got time to plant and release, he rifled off some pretty passes. When his immobility got the better of him, it was another story as the sack-fumble returned for a touchdown revealed all too clearly.

Against Denver’s back ups Dixon did what Dixon does. He electrified. Dennis Dixon didn’t just throw two touchdown passes and complete nearly 85% of his passes.

When Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, both who struggled in the slot last night, couldn’t get their routes right, Dixon made the defense pay with his feet. In fact, he converted two third and longs with his scrambles.

Ben Roethlisberger is a franchise quarterback, and if he keeps himself healthy, and he keeps his pants on, he has a shot at going down as one of the greatest in NFL history.

You can’t replace someone like Ben.

But with Dennis Dixon you get the feeling the Steelers be dynamic; no one says that about Leftwich.

‘Let the play speak for itself,’ Tomlin once promised. Well, Mike, the play spoke last night as it has through the entire preseason, and its message is loud and clear.

We can hear it. Can you Mike?”
– Ron W. Brown, Pittsburgh Press Review Gazette

The article above is of course as fictional as the composite writer and newspaper cited.

But such literary devices were necessary.

Steel Curtain Rising has already spoken on the Steelers quarterback derby, but it bears repeating given the storm of criticism that Mike Tomlin got from both the national and Pittsburgh media following the preseason loss to Denver.

Tomlin has handled the Steelers quarterbacking situation appropriately, and the hypothetical scenario above reveals why.

Dennis Dixon deserved a shot at Prime Time. He earned the right to live-fire drill against Denver’s first-line players. Unfortunately Dixon fell flat on his face.

Why then, does this vindicate Tomlin? The bottom line is simple:

  • It is far better for Dixon to go belly up against Denver during preseason then against the Falcons or Ravens when the games count.
But What About Leftwich?

Several commentators have noted that Leftwich has gotten only 45 snaps with the first unit this preseason.

That is a low number and, in hindsight, Tomlin might very well wish that number had been higher. But Tomlin knows what he has in Byron Leftwich. He’s a serviceable back up, he generally avoids game-costing mistakes, he has a Howitzer for an arm, but he is also immobile and has an odd throwing motion that slows his release.

Leftwich’s liabilities could be magnified if poor pass protection continues to plague the offensive line.

But you know what?

If that is the case, a few dozen or so additional snaps in preseason wouldn’t have made any difference.

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