Q: How will the Steelers cope with Big Ben’s suspension?
A: They fall way off after Roethlisberger. Byron Leftwich, he just won’t get it done. He moves like a snail. He’s got an average arm. He’s got a slow release. They’re really going to suffer the first part of the season without Ben. They’re going to have to rely on their running game and defense because in terms of throwing the ball, Leftwich is just bad. He’s not a very talented quarterback. I’m surprised they don’t have a better backup. But he knew the system and Tomlin was familiar with him so that’s what they’re going to do. That’s what coaches do, get guys they’re familiar with, but they’re going to fall way off. And Dennis Dixon, I’ve never really thought he was a quarterback. These guys, Leftwich and Dixon, they’re really limited quarterbacks, and the Steelers better get through the first four games and at least try to be .500 or at least 1-3. Otherwise they’ll lose the season right out of the gate without Roethlisberger.
Q: Why start Byron Leftwich over Dennis Dixon?
A: He’s just more seasoned. He’s a veteran with a bigger arm and I think a lot of people look at that. If you watch him in practice, he’s got an arm and he can make all the throws and he’s been around a long time and he’s had some success. But overall he can’t get away from pressure, he’s got a slow release, his accuracy is very poor. He’s a flash guy and I’m surprised he’s still in the league, frankly. There was a time when he was out and nobody even wanted him. But of course Pittsburgh brought him back in because, again, the coach was familiar with him. But Byron Leftwich is a huge dropoff from what I think is a top 5 quarterback in the league in Ben Roethlisberger, who of course already has two Super Bowls under his belt. You go from him to Leftwich, yeah, you’re going to suffer. They’re going to have to win with defense. I’ve never been a Leftwich fan.
Q: Dennis Dixon made his pro debut against Baltimore last year, in Baltimore, primetime game, and if it weren’t for an OT interception it looked as though Dixon was going to steal that game. Was that success a true indicator or more about the fact that the Ravens didn’t have enough tape on Dixon?
A: There’s no question. Dixon’s biggest problem is that he’s just not a natural quarterback. He’ll throw interceptions right to the defenders just like he did in college. He’ll slash, he’s athletic, he’s got a strong arm. But his throwing is so erratic, even at Oregon, and that never really changes. He’ll slash and get you excited but at the end of the day he’ll throw the big pick. He throws head-scratching picks and to be honest I think he has a problem reading defenses. He can move around and do those sorts of things but with the game on the line I wouldn’t have any confidence in him maintaining a game-winning drive.
Q: How will the Steelers fare in those first six games, and do you think the commissioner will keep Roethlisberger on the bench for the full duration of his suspension?
A: It could be four games. It could be six games. I don’t think it’ll be a full six games. I think it’ll be four games. The NFL wants to see their elite players on the field, and they’ll do everything in their power to get him back on the field. Especially with the Rooneys involved. They’re real close to the commissioner. I don’t see Ben missing more than four games. I’d be surprised.
Q: Their first four games: Atlanta at home, Tennessee and Tampa Bay both on the road, then Baltimore at home. How do you see them coming out of that four-game stretch?
A: I think they can possibly go .500 because they can rely on their defense and running game and pound the ball. It’s not a real tough early schedule but they have to be careful they don’t start 0-4 or 0-5. Again, they could go .500 but Leftwich is a big question mark and they’re a completely different team without Big Ben.
Q: Where else did the Steelers get better or worse this offseason, on either side of the ball?
A: The offensive line, I see it as a weakness. Willie Colon is a backup now. I don’t think they have a lot of depth on their offensive line. Their cornerback depth is off a little bit. I think their front seven is still good, and they have good young wide receivers, and good backers, they can still pressure the quarterback. The biggest thing I see is the offensive line. Byron Leftwich is immobile and that can cause problems for the Steelers. That combination could be a problem early.
Q: Let’s talk about Mike Tomlin. He recently signed a three-year extension, I believe. I’ve heard from some NFL insiders that despite his Super Bowl win he’s not necessarily the coach everyone makes him out to be, that he’s overrated. It’s tough to argue with the Super Bowls but what do you see his impact being this season and moving forward?
A: The pressure is always going to be on for Tomlin in Pittsburgh. He did win the Super Bowl but he’s taking over for Bill Cowher. I know last year there were fans starting to rumble. I think they’re keeping a watchful eye and monitoring the situation closely because I think they’ve fallen off a little bit, talent-wise, which usually leads to some losses, which usually leads to coaches being on the hot seat. That team doesn’t have the talent they had a few years back. If they continue to fall off I think you’re going to hear some griping in Pittsburgh. It’s a year-to-year thing there, like with most teams. I think Tomlin is a good coach but he does tend to maybe get a little too close to players. I think the guy will find himself on the hot seat in the near future.
Q: Who is going to win the AFC North this year?
A: I’d say it’s going to come down to Baltimore and Cincinnati. I think it’ll come down to the wire with those two teams.