If history is any indication Week 1's matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers will be a tight contest. The last four times the two teams have tangled in the regular season the game has been decided by four points or less.
This season, even without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers present a hefty challenge to the Falcons. A stout defense, led by Hall of Fame defensive coach Dick LeBeau, could shut down Atlanta's offense with its playmaking and physicality.
But a balanced Falcons team is approaching the Heinz Field showdown with their focus less on what the Steelers can do and more on what they can accomplish against Pittsburgh.
While the Atlanta offense enters Pittsburgh with an identical starting lineup on offense as last season, the defense continues to undergo a transformation entering the third season of Head Coach Mike Smith's tenure. 2010 first-round linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, free agent corner Dunta Robinson, and emerging pass rushing Kroy Biermann all begin 2010 as first-time starters on D for Atlanta.
A look at five keys that could ensure a Falcons victory:
Strong up the middle:The defensive tackle depth was addressed in the offseason with the addition of third-round pick Corey Peters, but he's still coming off a preseason injury. Peria Jerry will be starting and playing for the first time in a year. Trey Lewis will be starting for regular starter Jonathan Babineaux, who is serving a one-game suspension. All of this leaves the depth a little shaky. Swingman Jamaal Anderson could be critical to the middle of the line's attempt to stop Pittsburgh's run game. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton will begin what he hopes is a Pro Bowl season and being Atlanta's run-stopping force in Week 1 is a great place to start. Strong safety Erik Coleman will also need to step down into the box to help support what is likely to be a strong running game plan by Pittsburgh.
Hit Dixon: The mobile Dennis Dixon will get the starting nod at quarterback and while his inexperience and lack of a big arm bode well for Atlanta, his running ability could cause the Falcons defense fits. They'll need to hit him all day long and in doing they may not only rattle him, but could force him into mistakes. If ends like John Abraham and Biermann are hitting him, there's a good chance the Falcons are containing him and keeping him in one place.
Get Turner going:A slimmed-down and recommitted Michael Turner enters 2010 ready to show that his Pro Bowl 2008 season is the norm rather than the exception after an injury-riddled and lackluster performance last season. He faces a stiff challenge in a defense that ranked third last season in stopping the run, holding opponents to 89.9 yards per game. However, if Turner's running well the Atlanta offense is moving and when that happens victory usually follows. Under Smith the Falcons are 11-2 when they have a 100-yard rusher.
Take out Polamalu:The Falcons aren't headhunters and won't intentionally take out an opposing player, but if they can keep Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu away from the ball, the Steelers defense is much less imposing. Quarterback Matt Ryan will need to make quick decisions to avoid pass rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and by doing so his mistakes could be minimized. Polamalu feasts on mistakes by opposing quarterbacks caused by Pittsburgh's pass rush. If the running game is going strong, the safety will be forced to assist, opening up the field to receivers running away from Polamalu.
Pay attention to Miller:One of the more underrated tight ends in the NFL is Pittsburgh's Heath Miller. Steelers Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians recently called the sixth-year pro the best in the game and the recognition is starting to come for him, earning a Pro Bowl nod last season. With Dixon in at quarterback, Miller will be the check down, safety-valve option for the young quarterback. If linebackers Weatherspoon and Mike Peterson and safety Thomas DeCoud can reduce how effective Miller is, it could make for a long day for Dixon.