NEW ORLEANS -- Seen this week's slate of 16 games? It's as competitive a group as I've seen in a while. Maybe not the best slate of games, but the kind of schedule that makes me think: Glad I'm not in a knockout pool this year.
Atlanta-Pittsburgh. How do you pick that one? Atlanta, with a great summer and a lot of new defensive pieces in place to be a top-10 unit. Pittsburgh, with a controversial summer, with no Ben Roethlisberger, playing a kid quarterback in the opener. There are many subplots in a great opening weekend, and one that stands out in particular is Dennis Dixon's role with the Steelers.
Dixon's a great story, a mobile quarterback with a strong arm when he was at Oregon, where he was also a good outfielder with a seemingly bright baseball future. He was picked by the Braves in the fifth round of the 2007 MLB draft and selected in the fifth round (how coincidental) by the Steelers a year later.
Dixon failed at baseball, hitting .174 in a summer trial with a rookie league team. Then he shredded his ACL in the 2007 football season and his draft stock plummeted. Though he wasn't 100 percent by NFL draft day, Dixon piqued the interest of a lot of teams, and the Steelers took a chance on him as a developmental player. Pittsburgh has always been willing to take draft chances with interesting prospects -- Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El (college quarterbacks, NFL receivers), Kordell Stewart (college quarterback, NFL slash). Now that Dixon's healthy and has a chance to play, I'm anxious to see if the Steelers' investment is a smart one.
He's started one game to this point -- a pressure-packed road game against Baltimore last season on a November Sunday night when Roethlisberger was out with headaches. Despite having practiced only about 30 percent of the plays on the Steelers' offensive playsheet that night, Dixon played well in spots and sparked the Steelers, who lost 20-17 in overtime. He won the players that night. Though he completed only 12 of 26 throws, he proved he wasn't intimidated by the crowd or the Ray Lewis-led D. "He really grew up a lot that night,'' Ward said, "and the guys on our side came out of the game with a lot of respect for him.''
Now it's chapter two. If Dixon fails to lead the team or play well, I'm sure Mike Tomlin won't hesitate to go to his Old Man River, Charlie Batch. Dixon doesn't think it will come to that.
"The difference between last year and this year,'' he told me this week, "is now I feel totally comfortable in this offense. I'd be a fool to say my head wasn't spinning at Baltimore last year. I didn't practice with the ones [the first team], never mind that I didn't have the playbook down either. But now, going into this year, I feel so much better. And I don't feel like it's all on me. Coach Tomlin told me, 'Just ride the bus. We don't expect you to go out and win the game. Just play.' ''
What's going to be fun Sunday at Heinz Field is that the Falcons have added speed to their defense, including first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon, who chased mobile quarterbacks in spread offenses in the Big 12 while at Missouri. Dixon is the rabbit with the strong arm on the other side of the ball. I love what we're about to see.
"It's going to be interesting,'' Dixon said. "Obviously, the [run-pass versatility] is a threat they've got to game plan for. But I'm not just a guy looking to run. I never have been. I really love throwing the ball. I want to be a complete quarterback.''
This week, I said to Dixon, it's going to be interesting to see not only him have his first real chance at taking control, but also Mike Wallace, whoreplaces former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes in the lineup. I've said this all summer: Wallace is going to approximate Holmes' impact, and soon. "The threat of the deep ball is going to be huge with Mike,'' Dixon said. "I can't overthrow him. I'm really looking forward to playing with him.''
Actually, Dixon's just looking forward to playing.
"Can't wait,'' he said. "I'm just looking forward to seize the moment and have fun.''
Three thoughts from the Saints' 14-9 victory over Minnesota:
1. You never pick up where you left off the season before in the NFL. Walked off the field with Sean Payton after the game and he was already into the we're-not-apologizing-for-anything mode. Good for him. His old mentor, Bill Parcells, always used to say every season is an individual entity, and that's the one thing we learned last night. "I'm not apologizing for this win,'' Payton said."We just won a different way.'' When the defensive front is as valuable as the quarterback -- which it was for New Orleans -- you know the Saints are winning in a different way.
2. Adrian Peterson should not have disappeared late. It's easy to say Peterson should have been used more -- and, of course, he should have. He had 19 carries, all in the first three quarters, and touched the ball just once -- a short reception -- in the fourth quarter. But the Vikings ran only eight plays in the final quarter, and had the ball but four minutes. Still, I believe if the Vikes had kept trying to pound Peterson, who averaged 4.6 yards per rush, instead of trying to force a rusty Brett Favre into being the difference-maker in the fourth quarter, Minnesota would have won that game
3. The Vikings figured a way to get the crowd out of the game. I was on the field at different points of the game with my NBC duties, and what amazed me was how quiet it was. "They did a great job neutralizing the crowd,'' was the refrain in the Saints' locker room. It wasn't just the Vikings, either -- that crowd was different last night. It wasn't as nutty as the Saturday-night Dallas crowd last December, or the NFC title crowd last January. Maybe it was the boringness of the game, or the fact that so many fans might be satisfied after such an electric season and the first world title in club history. But it wasn't the kind of atmosphere that lends itself to the kind of home-field edge the Saints have used so effectively in the Payton era.
Cameron Wake, OLB, Miami
The Dolphins need a pass rush. They're asking two unproven NFL players -- the 6-foot-3, 250-pound, late-blooming Wake and rookie second-rounder Koa Misi -- to provide it. Wake was cut by the Giants in 2005 after playing at Penn State, and didn't have another shot to show what he could do until he was signed by the CFL's British Columbia Lions.
"It was pretty frustrating watching [NFL games] on TV, looking at guys and knowing I was better,'' Wake said. "I'd say, 'Why's he playing in the league and not me?' I never found out the answer.''
For a time, Wake "trained old ladies'' as a personal trainer ("I know what it's like to have a real job,'' he said.), all the while longing for another shot in the NFL. But 39 sacks and two defensive player of the year awards in Canada landed him that shot in 2009, and the Dolphins are convinced that, starting Sunday at Buffalo, he's going to be an edge-rush factor. He and Misi don't have to be Jason Taylor clones, but they do have to harass Trent Edwards for the Dolphins to start off with a win.
Brad Jones, OLB, Green Bay (No. 59)
With the Packers going to Philadelphia, and the Eagles unveiling their new quarterback, you can expect the two outside linebackers in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' aggressive scheme to be sent early and often to harass Kevin Kolb. Clay Matthews, third in defensive rookie of the year voting last year, you know. Jones, the seventh-round pick from Colorado last year, you don't. He doesn't have the quickness or raw strength of a classic Capers OLB, but he'll have a big chance Sunday to impact the game with a sack or by rushing from a spot Kolb won't expect.
Tebow, QB, Den.: 2-5 for 16 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 3 rushes for 9 yards, 1 TD
Right. I see Tebow playing around eight snaps in his NFL debut in Jacksonville, including some in a red-zone series. Coach Josh McDaniels is going to play Tebow as much as he deserves to play. It's almost going to be a weekly audition.
1. Mike Shanahan's imprint on the Redskins. And his coordinators' imprint, too. I see Jim Haslett unleashing some heavy blitz packages on Tony Romo, and I wonder how in-sync Kyle Shanahan and Donovan McNabb will be as McNabb starts the next phase of his career. I look for some growing pains on offense, but overall I look for Mike Shanahan's imprint to show. He's had a year to study for this game, and he won't be out-coached.
2. Albert Haynesworth's body language and playing time. We're all curious if the Haynesworth-Redskins shotgun wedding can be saved. Curious, I said. Not everlastingly fascinated. I'll be happy when this story's put to bed. It's really starting to bore me. Is Albert happy? Is he getting traded? How many snaps will he play? Will the new regime play to his strengths or continue to just tick him off? Wake me when it's over.
3. Whether the Raiders are contenders or their usual crushingly disappointing selves. Oakland's first-unit D played great in the summer, but then again, so did Detroit starters the year the Lions went 0-16. This year there's hope that more defenders than just Nnamdi Asomugha can play at a top level. The one guy I'm interested in seeing take the step to impact-player level: 6-5 defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, who had four sacks and lots of promise as a rookie out of Wisconsin a year ago.
4. The care and feeding of Chris Johnson. Last year, in his 2,509 yards-from-scrimmage season (2,006 rushing, 503 receiving), Johnson had 408 touches, a figure way above the norm in a league where only three running backs even averaged 20 carries or more in 2009. I wondered aloud to Jeff Fisher if he thinks he's doing the right thing continuing to give it to Johnson so much.
"I know that after his year last year, there was no residual effect,'' Fisher said."He missed one practice all year. Every time he gets the ball in practice, he goes through the line and runs 50 yards downfield. Right now, I don't see wear-and-tear being a factor.''
It most often isn't in year two or three. Fisher's the kind of guy who, in baseball, would abhor the mania about pitch counts. And he may be right. No one ever told Mike Ditka that Walter Payton was carrying it too much, and Payton ran it like Bob Gibson threw it -- 'til the cows came home, seven times averaging more than 20 carries a game.
5. Wes Welker's impact on the Pats. The Patriots list the backup security guy on the injury report usually. That's how reliable their injury-reporting is. The fact that Welker wasn't on the report Thursday indicates he had to have participated fully. Think how amazing it is that Walker shredded the ligaments in his knee just nine months ago, and now, despite him saying he doesn't think he's near his old self, he's running as fast and with the cutting ability that we got used to seeing during his three straight 100-catch seasons.
6. Tony Gonzalez catching his 1,000th pass against the vaunted (and healthy) Steeler D. He's got 999. When Matt Ryan found that out after the Falcons' final game last year, he thought he should have fed him one more ball. I can tell you Gonzalez thought that too -- but he never made a big deal of it. A tight end with 1,000 catches. What is this game coming to?
7. Lots of rookies, but, on offense, Dexter McCluster most of all. The Chiefs had their offseason eye on an offensive difference-maker out of the backfield. They missed out on Darren Sproles when the Chargers retained him. They got one in McCluster, who, beginning Monday night against the Chargers, should line up in just about as many spots as the poor umpire who doesn't know where the heck he is.
8. ... and on defense, Ndamukong Suh. The Lions are giddy with excitement over Suh. Sometimes in training camp, Jim Schwartz thought he was watching Warren Sapp in his third year and not Suh in his first when he witnessed the havoc Suh created from the interior defensive line. The Bears will see it firsthand Sunday at Soldier Field.
9. Darrelle Revis. I just want to see if he walks on water or the new Meadowlands field.
10. Peyton Manning running the Colts' hurry-up with the slight delay of the new umpire positioning. This could be the tempest-in-a-teapot that last year's Cowboys low video board was supposed to be entering the season. The way I look at it is Manning will just figure another way to torment defenses if he can't be as fast as he was when the umpire was exclusively on the defensive side of the ball. In other words, I don't think we'll be talking about it much Monday morning.