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Steelers rally together vs. Falcons
Even for a season opener, Pittsburgh’s 15-9 overtime victory over Atlanta had an eerie Super Bowl feel.
As in Super Bowl XL.
Rashard Mendenhall’s 50-yard touchdown run to win Sunday’s contest? Steelers tight end Heath Miller said it was the same play call — 22-Double — that resulted in Willie Parker’s game-breaking 75-yard jaunt when Pittsburgh bested Seattle for the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy.
The similarities don’t end there.
The 2005 Steelers needed stout defense and strong individual efforts to compensate for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s inexperience. This year’s squad was in the same boat. Dennis Dixon ran the offense as Roethlisberger spent Sunday away from Heinz Field as part of his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
In just his second NFL start, Dixon didn’t make the kind of plays that can win games like his predecessor. But the third-year veteran also limited mistakes in an 18-of-26, 236-yard passing performance that has Steelers fans breathing much easier about the team’s prospects until Roethlisberger returns.
“I know (Roethlisberger) was at home cheering,” Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said afterward. “I know he’s a little disappointed not being out there competing with us. He’s still our man, but he’s not with us now. Dennis is filling in in the captain’s role trying to keep this ship going.”
That description would make Ward the best kind of first mate an NFL club could have.
With six catches for 108 yards, Ward reached such Steelers milestones as 11,000 receiving yards and 26 career 100-yard outings. But his true value can’t be found on a stat sheet.
To start, Ward was one of four Steelers whose blocking created the crease for Mendenhall to dash through the right side of what had been a stingy Atlanta defense. Not every wideout would get his hands so dirty.
“That’s just part of my position,” he said. “I take pride in being a total, complete wide receiver – not just catching the ball.”
Ward also displayed leadership when keeping Dixon from becoming despondent after a rough first half. The player that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls “Double D” was en route to becoming a major bust. At one point, Dixon had thrown three awful incompletions on third down and was intercepted on a sloppy pass intended for tight end Heath Miller.
“I got overexcited,” Dixon admitted with a smile almost as bright as the diamond in his ear. “I’m just happy to have someone like Hines and those savvy vets on the offensive side to calm me down. In the second half, it became easier for me.”
Pittsburgh’s defense did its part by not allowing the big play. Atlanta’s longest gain was a measly 23 yards. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu also gave Pittsburgh a chance to win in regulation by intercepting Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan before kicker Jeff Reed missed a 40-yard field goal with 39 seconds remaining. Reed, though, did connect on three other attempts.
The Steelers heroics don’t end there. Daniel Sepulveda kept Atlanta pinned inside its own territory by averaging 50.8 yards on five punts. Left tackle Jonathan Scott and nose tackle Chris Hoke filled in admirably when replacing injured starters Max Starks (ankle) and Casey Hampton (hamstring). With 11 tackles, including three for losses, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons enjoyed a career day. Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White had 13 catches for 111 yards, but Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden made sure none of those receptions spanned more than 18 yards.
And of course, there was Mendenhall. He helped carry what resembled the Steelers grind-it-out offense of old, finishing with 22 carries for 150 yards.
Pittsburgh must have these kinds of collective contributions to weather Roethlisberger’s absence and avoid a 1-3 hole to open the season. No matter how noncommittal Tomlin is publicly about his team’s quarterbacking future, Roethlisberger is the key to both short- and long-term success. Dixon’s play Sunday showed that he is small potatoes compared to Big Ben.
But with so many Steelers stepping up, the talk in Pittsburgh this week will no longer be about the player who let everyone down. That will be a welcome relief after an entire offseason spent talking more about Roethlisberger’s deviant off-field behavior than Super Bowl aspirations.
“Everyone is doubting us,” Dixon said. “But if we don’t doubt ourselves, we’ve got a pretty good ball club here. We’ve just got to keep that going.”
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