Steelers turning to Dixon
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer dlolley@observer-reporter.com

PITTSBURGH - If you took odds or asked the Steelers coaching staff who Pittsburgh's starting quarterback would be to open the regular season, it's highly doubtful that Dennis Dixon would have been the top selection.

Heck, he might not have even been No. 2.

But when the Steelers host the Atlanta Falcons in today's opener at Heinz Field, it will be Dixon under center replacing suspended Ben Roethlisberger instead of veterans Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch.

[IMGR]http://i55.tinypic.com/2aeqoa8.jpg[/IMGR]It's certainly not the scenario coach Mike Tomlin envisioned when he learned that Roethlisberger would be suspended to open the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy.

The Steelers made a trade with Tampa Bay to reacquire Byron Leftwich, who was Roethlisberger's backup during Pittsburgh's Super Bowl championship run in 2008.

And despite a strong push by Dixon, who attempted only 27 passes in his first two seasons with the Steelers, the plan was for Leftwich to fill in for Roethlisberger during his four-game suspension.

But an injury to Leftwich's left knee in the preseason finale against Carolina left Dixon as the Steelers' starter - at least this week.

"It's so surreal," said Dixon, a 2008 fifth-round draft pick. "You envision this as little kid, starting in the National Football League, and to open up the season, too."

For the Falcons, who missed the playoffs last season with a 9-7 record, playing against an outstanding scrambler like Dixon creates some interesting problems.

"Dennis creates issues with the skill set he has as a quarterback in terms of his athleticism," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith. "We're going to have to make sure we're on top of our game because he is very athletic. He throws the ball well, but he can make plays with his feet as well. It will be very important for us to have a good plan to contain the quarterback, keep him in the pocket and not let him create explosive plays when the integrity of the play breaks down."

Keeping Dixon in the pocket and forcing him win with his arm rather than his legs will be the Falcons' plan. Against that game plan, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall will likely face plenty of eight- and even nine-man defensive fronts.

"I think it opens it up, because those guys have to be respectful of his ability and what (Dixon) can do," Mendenhall said. "When he (runs a bootleg), they have to respect that. It keeps you on your heals."

The Steelers aren't concerned with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan getting out of the pocket. They do have concerns with Atlanta's offense, which boasts a Pro Bowl receiver in Roddy White, veteran tight end in Tony Gonzalez and solid running back in Michael Turner.

The defense also knows that with Dixon starting, its margin for error could be smaller than usual.

"No doubt," said cornerback Bryant McFadden, who will make his first start for the Steelers since Super Bowl XLIII.

"There's always the added pressure you have with playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Having one of our key guys out for a couple of games, we're going to be called on to really stiffen up more and do what we need to do to have an opportunity to win each ball game."

The Steelers' defense will have strong safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith on the field together for the first time since the 2009 regular season opener. Injuries limited them to five games each in 2009.

Without Polamalu and Smith, the Steelers defense - which had led the league in nearly every category in 2008 - was vulnerable, finishing fifth overall and blowing five fourth-quarter leads.

"It wasn't like we were horrible last year, but obviously that's behind us," said Polamalu. "We'll find out how good we really are through a 16-game schedule."

[HIGH-LIGHT]Odds and end zones[/HIGH-LIGHT]

Starting wide receiver Michael Jenkins (shoulder) is out for Atlanta. He will be replaced by Brian Finneran. ... The Steelers are 11-2-1 against the Falcons, though one of the losses and the tie have come the last two times the teams have met.