The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a game and found a quarterback.
They already have a franchise quarterback who’s won two Super Bowls in four seasons – a guy named Ben Roethlisberger. During a bit of unanticipated adversity, the Steelers learned Dennis Dixon is a lot closer to being a solid NFL quarterback than the rest of the league might have anticipated.
Dixon, the former Oregon star and a fifth-round draft pick in 2008, had thrown all of one NFL pass before starting Sunday night in Baltimore on about 24 hours notice. The assignment would have been difficult enough if Dixon had practiced all week, but Roethlisberger took most of the snaps, only to be ruled out Saturday because of post-concussion headaches.
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Dixon hadn’t run the Steelers‘ offense extensively for weeks – not even in practice – yet he threw for a touchdown and ran for a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh’s 20-17 overtime loss.
“He played his heart out,” wide receiver Hines Ward said.
Even during a loss, Dixon won over a team.
“It’s not too big for him,” coach Mike Tomlin said Wednesday. “I think he proved that. He showed great poise and presence playing on the road in a hostile environment against a good defense. He’s going to continue to get better. His best days are ahead of him. That was just a step in the process.”
Dixon completed 8 of 10 passes and threw for a score during the first half. He was less effective after that, going 4 of 16 for 58 yards with an interception that led to Baltimore’s winning field goal in overtime, but his 24-yard touchdown run put the Steelers ahead 17-14 with 6:24 remaining.
“It would be crazy to say I didn’t have nerves,” Dixon said. “I think the first couple of series I had a couple of nerves, but it’s all about playing and that’s something I’ve been doing for a while. I’ve been there and done that – it’s all about getting on the bike and doing it again.”
Given the circumstances and the rushed preparation, his teammates were impressed by a quarterback who finished fifth in the 2007 Heisman Trophy voting, only to fall into the second half of the NFL draft because of a severe knee injury.
No young Steelers quarterback has made his first NFL start with such minimal preparation since rookie Mike Kruczek filled in for the injured Terry Bradshaw for six games in 1976. Even Roethlisberger played a half in Baltimore his rookie season in 2004 before starting in Miami the following week.
“A lot of times people don’t understand everything that goes into being a quarterback,” center Justin Hartwig said. “You have to manage the game. There were times early when he was so focused on what his assignment was, we lost track of the play clock. But there’s a lot that goes on in identifying the defense – him and I communicate, and he has to communicate with the receivers. For a young guy to get his first start in a hostile environment like that, with so much responsibility, it’s a testament to how well he prepared.”
How well he ran, too.
Dixon also had a 31-yard run in the first half that was called back by a penalty. Tomlin was tempted to use him more as a runner, but didn’t because of the risk of injury. The only other healthy quarterback was Tyler Palko, who signed with the team only three days before and didn’t know the offense.
“I think Dennis won the guys over with his performance,” Ward said. “I’m very proud of what he came in and did. … “He won over a lot of the guys on this team.”
If nothing else, Dixon likely secured the backup’s job going into next season. Longtime No. 2 quarterback Charlie Batch, currently out with a broken left wrist, is unsigned past this season.
“He did everything coach (Tomlin) asked him to do – and more,” Roethlisberger said. “He played with the fire and intensity we’ve seen in practice. The Ravens found out what we’ve known all along: He’s a very good quarterback.”