Ugly Win a Thing of Beauty for Dennis Dixon, Steelers
"We've got some things to work on, obviously," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after a game in which neither team moved the ball into the red zone until there were five minutes gone in the fourth quarter. "But we get to do it while we're 1-0."
Which means the worst they can possibly be when Ben Roethlisberger gets back is 1-3.
The early-season storyline with the Steelers is the four-game absence of Roethlisberger, who's serving that suspension for his violation of the league's personal conduct policy. His replacement Sunday was young Dennis Dixon, a third-year quarterback out of Oregon, whose only prior NFL start came late last year when Roethlisberger was ruled out of action the day before the Steelers' Week 12 game in Baltimore. Dixon was named the Steelers' Week 1 starter early last week, which means he had a mountain of preparation time for his second career start compared with what he got for his first.
"Having a whole week to prepare versus one day, that makes a big difference," Dixon said. "Working all week with the receivers, getting your timing down, that's huge."
Dixon in the first half was ... not great. He completed 10 of 16 passes for 91 yards and an interception. He looked skittish and jittery at times behind an offensive line that's already missing injured right tackle Willie Colon and saw starting left tackle, Max Starks, leave this game with a sprained ankle. But Dixon was better in the second half, completing 8 of 10 for 145 yards, in large part thanks to the impressive downfield work of veteran receiver Hines Ward.
"When you have a young guy in there at quarterback and you need big-time plays, you're pretty comfortable when you can deliver to old 86," Tomlin said, invoking Ward's jersey number. "We know what he's capable of and he just about always delivers for us."
Ward was prominent among the Steelers' old reliables that kept this game close, even when the offense wasn't functioning. Most of the other reliables, though, were playing on the defensive side of the ball. Stars like James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Aaron Smith stifled Michael Turner, Matt Ryan and the Falcons' defense all afternoon. And Troy Polamalu, whose injury and absence from 11 games last year may have had as much to do with the Steelers missing the playoffs as anything else that happened to them, just about won the game with an interception of Ryan on the 30-yard line with 1:40 left on the fourth-quarter clock.
"The situation we're in, we still feel like we can win with Dennis, obviously, but we've got to keep scores down on the other side of the ball," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "And if we do that, we'll be in these games in the fourth quarter."
There was still work to do. Following Polamalu's interception, Jeff Reed missed a 40-yard field goal that would have put the Steelers up 12-9 with 43 seconds to go, and so there was overtime. The Falcons won the coin toss but only moved the ball five yards before they had to punt. It was a crummy punt, and the Steelers took over at the 50-yard line and called one play -- 22-double -- a Dixon handoff to Mendenhall. Ward estimated that it was the 15th time the Steelers had called the play in the game. It was the first time it worked.
"That play is to the right side, and you just take any gap you see and run through it," Mendenhall said.
He saw the gap, he hit it, and he was gone. A Falcons defender whisked the back of his shoe at around the 10-yard line, but not hard enough to knock him down. Mendenhall reached the end zone, and Dennis Dixon was 1-0 as a caretaker quarterback.
"It was a complete team victory," Dixon said. "You look around this room, there's a guy at every locker that made a play and helped us win."
Which isn't to say there aren't issues here. Even when Roethlisberger gets back, the offensive line is a concern. Starks left the stadium on crutches with his left foot in a plastic walking boot. Nobody said how long he'd be out, but for however long it is, the Steelers will operate with their third option at left tackle. They already have a rookie, Maurkice Pouncey, starting at center and a right tackle, Flozell Adams, whose best days are clearly in the past. There's a chance these Steelers could struggle to score points in the final 12 games of the season as well as in the first four.
And as for Dixon? Again, he's 1-0, but Tomlin wasn't exactly effusive in his praise.
"It was a winning effort," Tomlin said. "The scoreboard says so."
Asked if Dixon had done enough to earn another start, Tomlin dodged quickly.
"We'll talk about next week next week," Tomlin said. "Right now, we're just going to bask in it. Along with Dennis."
Because as ugly as this might have been, the Steelers can look at the standings right now and all they care about is that it says 1-0 next to their name. That's pretty enough to make them forget all the ugly.