Unproven QB gets the call vs. Falcons

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PITTSBURGH --- Of all the improbable scenarios the Pittsburgh Steelers could have concocted during perhaps the most miserable off-season in the franchise's history, this would be near the top of the list.

Pittsburgh QBs Charlie Batch (left) and Dennis Dixon discuss a play during a preseason game. Dixon will make his second career start today in place of the suspended Ben Roethlisberger.  Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Pittsburgh QBs Charlie Batch (left) and Dennis Dixon discuss a play during a preseason game. Dixon will make his second career start today in place of the suspended Ben Roethlisberger.

Dennis Dixon will be their season-opening quarterback today against the Atlanta Falcons.

Not Ben Roethlisberger, who is throwing passes to nondescript receivers at a high school stadium while he serves a four-game suspension for his off-field misbehavior. Not Byron Leftwich, who was reacquired to start while Roethlisberger was out but is sidelined with a left knee injury. Not Charlie Batch, who has been with the Steelers since 2002 and knows the playbook better than the coaches do.

Nope, it's Dixon -- a former fifth-round pick who was passed over multiple times by every NFL team in the 2008 draft.

Not since No. 1 pick Terry Bradshaw was the rawest of rookies in 1970, the Hall of Famer's first and worst season, have the Steelers started so inexperienced a quarterback in their opener.

Dixon has thrown all of 27 passes, started one game. His running skills might be the best of any NFL quarterback, yet his own offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, said he won't last a game if he tries to run too much.

Which raises some intriguing questions, not only for the Steelers themselves but also the Falcons.

Is starting a quarterback so unproven a decided disadvantage for the Steelers? Or does Dixon, with his ability to take off with the football at any moment, offer such a change from what the Steelers do with Roethlisberger that starting him might prove to be a strategical masterstroke by coach Mike Tomlin?

"He's a dual threat," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "He can throw it, but at any time he can break those 40- or 50-yard runs. I expect him to control our offense and lead our team to a victory."

Ask the Falcons, and they'll take playing Pittsburgh without Roethlisberger any time.

"I mean, yeah!" tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "I'm just answering honestly. He's a Pro Bowl player, he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league -- it will be like if we didn't have Matt Ryan."

The Steelers have started unproven quarterbacks before. Cliff Stoudt had thrown only 98 passes before replacing the injured Bradshaw in 1983. Kordell Stewart had thrown all of 37 passes, some in his so-called Slash role, before starting in 1997.

"It's so surreal," Dixon said. "You envision this as little kid, starting in the National Football League, and to open up the season, too."

The Falcons, coming off consecutive 9-7 records that represented the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history, upgraded a pass defense that was the NFL's fourth worst last season by signing former Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson. He missed all the preseason with a sore hamstring, but coach Mike Smith doesn't expect him to be slowed today as he lines up against Hines Ward.

The Falcons' offense badly missed former All-Pro running back Michael Turner as he sat out about half of last season with a high ankle sprain, which led to a drop in his rushing yardage from 1,699 in 2008 to 871. A healthy Turner would most benefit Ryan, who has thrown for 6,356 yards in two seasons.

The Falcons will be dealing with a key suspension as defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux sits out after being arrested last year on marijuana charges.


1 p.m. - Fox-Ch. 54

SERIES RECORD: Steelers lead 11-2-1

LAST MEETING: Falcons beat Steelers, 41-38 (OT), Oct. 22, 2006

STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES: Teams haven't played in Pittsburgh since 34-all tie in 2002. ... Falcons coach Mike Smith is 2-0 in openers; Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is 3-0. ... Falcons RB Michael Turner has 27 rushing TDs since '08, tied for second most in league. ... With Ben Roethlisberger beginning four-game suspension, third-year Steelers QB Dennis Dixon makes second career start. He started 20-17 OT loss in Baltimore on Nov. 29, going 12 of 26 for 145 yards, 1 TD and 1 interception. He also ran 24 yards for a TD.

-- Associated Press

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