I don't have any NFL Best Bets in week 1 (I usually wait until week 2 before I play an NFL game), but I do have one Strong Opinion, which have been profitable in both the NFL and College over the years (56% in College and 54% in the NFL). Make sure to check out my weekly free analysis and money management articles at drbobsports.com.
Each Thursday afternoon (after 3 pm Pacific this week) I post analysis of 40 to 50 College and NFL games in the Free Analysis section of my website.
PITTSBURGH (+1 1/2) 22 Atlanta 19
The odds makers knew that Ben Roethlisberger would be out for this game when they posted the opening line of pick, but the public seems they think they know more than the professionals on how much losing Big Ben will mean to the Steelers. The public always tends to overreact to the loss of a starting quarterback and Pittsburgh is 4-2 ATS since Roethlisberger became the starting quarterback (in week 3 of his rookie season) in the games that he has missed (aside from the two week 17 games when the starters were held out, they were 1-1 ATS in those games). Last season, Dennis Dixon, who will start this game, played pretty well on the road against a very good Ravens' defense and averaged 5.6 yards per pass play (Baltimore would allow 5.4 yppp at home to an average quarterback) while running for 27 yards on 3 scrambles. The Steelers were installed as an 8 point underdog in that game and lost just 20-23 in overtime with Dixon at quarterback. Dixon won't be nearly as good as Roethlisberger was last season (he was 0.9 yppp better than average), but he probably won't be too much worse than an average quarterback given how well other backups have performed when stepping in for Roethlisberger over the years. The loss of top WR Santonio Holmes may not be that devastating to the Steelers' pass attack given that Hines Ward and new starter Mike Wallace combined to average 9.4 yards per pass thrown to them last season, which is slightly higher than the 9.2 ypa that Holmes averaged (of course, Holmes faced more double-coverage, so there will be some drop off). Pittsburgh's rushing attack is in good hands with Rashard Mendenhall coming off a rookie campaign in which is averaged 4.6 ypr and Dixon should enhance the rushing numbers with his scrambling ability.
Pittsburgh's offense won't be as good without Roethlisberger, but it should be at least average with Dixon and the Steelers' defense should be much improved with All-Pro S Troy Polamalu healthy after playing in just 5 games last season. Pittsburgh's defense was night and day better in the 5 games that Polamalu played, as the Steelers allowed 4.6 yards per play in those 5 games (against teams that would average 5.2 yppl against an average team) while rating as just average defensively in the 11 games without their star safety. Pittsburgh was also without starting DE Aaron Smith last season, so Pittsburgh should be much better defensively this season. This is pretty much the same defense that was so dominant in their Championship season of 2008 (4.2 yppl allowed to teams that would average 5.4 yppl) and I'll call for Pittsburgh to be 0.7 yppl better than average defensively this season.
Along with the defensive improvement should be a vast improvement in special teams, as the Steelers were perhaps the worst team ever in kickoff coverage, allowing a horrendous 4 kick return touchdowns an averaging just 36.9 yards per kickoff, which is an average field position of the 33 yard line (rather than the NFL average of the 26 yard line). That loss of field position and touchdowns allowed on kickoffs added up to over 2 points per game last season and while Jeff Reed still has a weak leg, the coverage teams look much better and that should result in a point or two per game in field position.
Atlanta is a trendy pick to emerge out of the NFC this year and while the Falcons will be better, I don't see their defense being strong enough to carry them too far. Atlanta's defense has been worse than average the last few seasons and last year's strength of stopping the run (4.1 ypr allowed to teams that would average 4.5 ypr against an average team) will not be as much of a strength without suspended run stuffing DT Jonathan Babineaux. The pass defense was worse than it should have been due to injury, but they were below average even when they were healthy and adding CB Dunta Robinson probably won't be enough to get them to be better than average. I'll rate the Falcons' defense as slightly below average heading into this season, but the offense will probably be improved. Quarterback Matt Ryan suffered a bit of a sophomore slump last season (6.0 yppp) after a great rookie campaign (7.4 yards per pass play), but Ryan did face a much tougher schedule of pass defenses last season (those teams would combine to allow 5.9 yppp to an average QB) and his performance should fall somewhere in between the great 2008 and mediocre 2009 numbers. The rushing attack also regressed into mediocrity last season as top running back Michael Turner and backup Jerious Norwood suffered through injuries, but Turner and Norwood should produce better than average rushing numbers in 2010 and the offense overall should go from average to about 0.5 yards per play better than average.
The Falcons are a better than average team, but I don't think they are as good as most project them to be and I don't think they're as good as Pittsburgh will be even without Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers average offense (with Dixon) matches up pretty well with Atlanta's mediocre defense and Pittsburgh's defense has a slight edge over Atlanta's good offense based on my projections. I actually favor the Steelers by 3 points in this game and there is certainly line value in favor of Pittsburgh with this line having gone from pick to +2 ½ points. I obviously like it even more if the line goes to +3. I'll consider Pittsburgh a Strong Opinion in this game and I'd take the Steelers in a 2-Star Best Bet at +3 points or more (at -115 odds or better).
I have free analysis of all 16 NFL games and 43 College games this weekend in the Free Analysis section of my website.
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