November 30, 2009
Pittsburgh Steelers second-year backup quarterback Dennis Dixon(notes) played well in his first NFL start, especially under the circumstances -- going 12 of 26 for 145 yards, a touchdown, and an interception doesn't sound like a big deal until you consider that it was against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night national television. Belying the myth of the noodle-armed spread-stuck quarterback, Dixon went deep with several throws and showed good velocity on his intermediate routes.
He did throw the overtime pick to Baltimore's Paul Kruger(notes) out of a zone blitz look that allowed the Ravens to kick the winning field goal in a 20-17 final, but I don't think the Steelers are terribly concerned about that throw to a defensive look Dixon probably hasn't seen too much -- he's more used to defenses hanging deep or simple short coverage in college, or vanilla defenses in the NFL preseason. It was a "live and learn" moment, and you could see that Dixon will require some time to deal with basic zone reads of any stripe.
To get a better feel for Dixon's specific college skill set, and what the Steelers might do to adjust to Dixon's familiarity with option packages, I asked Chris Brown, Big Kahuna of the indispensable Smart Football blog and a frequent contributor to Dr. Saturday, Shutdown Corner's sister NCAA site, for the scoop. Chris' answer came back to me as the game was in progress (thanks to my e-mail program classifying it as spam!), but there's a lot in here that could apply to how the Steelers use Dixon in future, should the need arise.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians have to figure out how to both use Dixon's unique ability as a dynamic runner without putting the whole game on his shoulders. One school of thought would be to adopt the option plays Tennessee has used with Vince Young(notes) in recent weeks. I'd be surprised if Pittsburgh went that route. Unlike the Wildcat or the shotgun zone option stuff so popular in college, the lead-option and reverse-out speed option plays Young and Chris Johnson have succeeded with are great plays, no doubt. My guess is they originate in Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's mind, as he had extensive college coaching experience (including at the Air Force Academy) before he came to the pros some time ago. And, in a league full of unimaginative copycats, Heimerdinger, rather than copy what the Dolphins or some other team has done, went with something he knew how to do: old school option stuff.
But things are different where the Titans (a) already had their season basically over, and (b) knew they had to commit to Vince Young. This meant they could commit to those new option plays. With the Steelers and Dixon, however, while everything is new for a new quarterback, installing a bunch of new plays makes everything new for everyone.
There's an old saying among coaches at lower levels, which is that every time you change your offense (or defense) you make your seniors freshman. Now, this is the NFL, but installing a whole new scheme suddenly throws the whole Steelers offense into a new learning curve. This is one reason why such option plays and other gadgets look so ugly in the pros. They don't practice them, so they don't know what they are doing. (Though if Pittsburgh wanted to install a new play to utilize Dixon's athleticism, I'd recommend this one.)
The Steelers did go with more traditional looks, rolling Dixon out at times but keeping him in the pocket enough to avoid turning the entire offensive game plan over. Thanks to Chris Brown for his insight, and expect more soon on the ways in which NFL teams are sneaking option looks into their playbooks.
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