Steelers find just enough offense to beat Falcons
Hines Ward didn't like it. Mike Wallace didn't like it. If Ben Roethlisberger were around, he wouldn't have liked it, either.
Didn't matter. The Steelers knew they couldn't turn their offense loose against the Falcons with their No. 3 quarterback starting, and they didn't. They couldn't score a touchdown until the game's 63rd minute, but Rashard Mendenhall's 50-yard scoring run on their first offensive play in overtime was enough for a 15-9 victory.
Dennis Dixon, making only his second NFL start, completed just enough throws in the second half - a 52-yarder to Wallace and a pair of 20 yards-plus completions to Ward - to keep the Steelers from becoming one-dimensional offensively.
Still, the Steelers knew in April, when Roethlisberger was suspended for off-field misbehavior, that their running game and defense likely would carry them through the quarterback's absence. They know it now, in September, with three more games without Roethlisberger remaining after a victory that easily could have been a loss.
Some of those games may be without injured left tackle Max Starks (left ankle) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (hamstring), too. Next up: Tennessee on Sunday, the first of successive road games.
''It was a winning effort,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ''The scoreboard says so.''
Not much else did in the opener.
As the two tentative teams traded field goal attempt after field goal attempt, Ward became unhappy with an offense that clearly intended to win or lose with its running game. Mendenhall finished with 120 yards on 22 carries as Pittsburgh outrushed Atlanta 143-58.
''At times I kind of got a little angry, but I understood we had to do that,'' said Ward, who made six catches for 108 yards, his team-record 26th 100-yard game. ''Mike (Wallace) came to me and said, `Man, all we do is run the ball.' I just said we had to.''
About then, the two receivers must have been thinking what many in the crowd of 63,609 were: If only Ben Roethlisberger were here.
''We kind of bogged down,'' tight end Heath Miller said.
The Falcons were bogged down even more. They didn't score until Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, and they chose to go for another field goal - and a 9-all tie - while facing a fourth-and-1 at the 5 with 3 1/2 minutes remaining.
Coach Mike Smith initially kept his offense on the field, but changed his mind and sent in his kicking unit at a time when it appeared any touchdown would be good enough to win.
''When coach called it, I was getting ready, getting myself pumped up,'' said Michael Turner, who gained 42 yards on 19 attempts. ''If we would have got that I think we would have probably finished the game off. But coach changed his mind. We have to trust his decision.''
Jeff Reed, who kicked three field goals for Pittsburgh, had a chance to win it after that, but missed a 40-yarder with 39 seconds remaining - assuring the third Falcons-Steelers overtime in three games since 2002.
After Atlanta did nothing on its only OT possession, Mendenhall ran 50 yards behind the right side of his line on a play that reminded Ward of Willie Parker's 75-yard TD run against Seattle in the February 2006 Super Bowl.
''As a defense I thought we played pretty well the entire game, and then to let them have a big play like that at the end, it makes you sick to your stomach,'' Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton said.
Overall, the Steelers didn't remind anyone of a Roethlisberger-led offense, although Dixon's numbers weren't terrible (18 of 26, 236 yards, 1 interception). Tomlin wouldn't commit to him starting at Tennessee, though it seems unlikely the Steelers would rush back the injured Byron Leftwich, who hurt his left knee in the final preseason game Sept. 2.
Pittsburgh's defense didn't give Atlanta much at all, playing much like the NFL-leading unit that carried the Steelers to their second Super Bowl victory in four years during the 2008 season.
''We just have to find ways to counter that when teams do that to us,'' Turner said. ''We have to make plays when there are plays to be made out there. ... We've got too many playmakers on this offense to not score a touchdown.''