Harris: Injury scuttles Dixon’s big chance
It was only two games — two games that may have determined Dennis Dixon’s future with the Steelers.
Officially, Dixon has started three NFL games — two this year, one last year. He has a 2-1 record, but he’s probably started his last game in a black-and-gold uniform.
I always believed Dixon was playing for the 31 other NFL teams. The Steelers are Ben Roethlisberger’s team, and Dixon will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Dixon’s future as a starter with the Steelers is limited, to say the least.
His four-game audition while Roethlisberger serves his suspension ended abruptly when an MRI revealed he suffered torn cartilage in his left knee during Sunday’s 19-11 win at Tennessee. It’s the same knee he injured his senior year at Oregon that cost him a chance of winning the Heisman Trophy.
The prognosis is not good. Dixon could miss the next couple of weeks, according to NFL sources. When he returns, Roethlisberger will be back in the lineup, and Dixon will be back on the bench.
It’s a terrible blow for Dixon, who completed 22 of 32 passes for 254 yards with no touchdowns and one interception this season.
Dixon’s numbers were far from outstanding but weren’t reason to push the panic button, as long as defense continued to dominate for the 2-0 Steelers. Unfortunately, Dixon didn’t help his cause because of indecisive decision-making, a lack of defensive recognition and questionable arm strength, particularly on intermediate tosses, that trapped him in a sort of no-man’s land on the depth chart.
Coach Mike Tomlin will choose between Byron Leftwich, who is recovering from a knee injury he suffered in the final preseason game, and 35-year-old Charlie Batch until Roethlisberger returns Oct. 17 against Cleveland at Heinz Field. That’s a scary proposition for Tomlin — which of his immobile quarterbacks to start against a rejuvenated Tampa Bay defense behind a beat-up offensive line that’s yielded seven sacks in the first two games.
Too bad for Dixon, who still had the confidence of his teammates despite playing nowhere close to his potential.
Defensive captain James Farrior attempted to boost Dixon’s spirits after the Tennessee game — and before learning that he would no longer be the starter.
Farrior sensed Dixon was holding back his talent as a multidimensional passer/runner and wanted him to know he still believed in him.
“I told him just let it all hang out — don’t hold back. Go out there and be the athlete that you are and make plays,” said Farrior, an inside linebacker. “The way our defense has been playing, he can go out there with confidence knowing that if he makes a mistake we’re going to have his back.
“For a young quarterback, his first opportunity, you don’t want to make mistakes and you play a little cautious. I think he might have that in his mind right now.”
One explanation for Dixon not playing with confidence during his short stint as a starter could be as elementary as how the Steelers were asking him to play.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians wanted Dixon to keep his running to a minimum. Dixon is a young, inexperienced quarterback. Telling him not to run so early in his career limited his effectiveness, stunted his growth and made him a sitting duck behind the Steelers’ porous line.
Sure, Dixon must improve his arm strength. He’s going to have to prove he can consistently locate his second and third reads and also make those difficult throws toward the sideline that can make or break a quarterback.
But Dixon looked quite capable on a 52-yard bomb to Mike Wallace against Atlanta in the opener. And his accuracy and arm strength were in perfect sync on a 68-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown in a preseason game against Detroit.
Dixon displayed snippets of his dangerous running ability during a 21-yard scramble against Tennessee before injuring his knee. It was the longest run from scrimmage for either team.
Dixon’s untapped potential is why Farrior said teammates still believe in the young QB.
“I don’t think he’s as comfortable as he would like to be. That’s understandable for a young guy,” Farrior said. “He’s just got to get the reps and build on them.”
Words to live by.
Too bad Dixon may have to get those reps with another team.