The Steelers play Sunday at Tennessee, where they have won once in nine games over the past 13 years, and they have not been such large underdogs since the previous time Dennis Dixon started for them at quarterback on the road.
Dixon will get the nod for the second consecutive game, coach Mike Tomlin confirmed Tuesday, and, while the quarterback won his first game and apparently won over his coach, he has not won over the skeptics.
The Steelers are 5 1/2-point underdogs heading to Tennessee, tame compared to last November in Baltimore when the Ravens were nine-point favorites against them in Dixon's only start before last Sunday and won by three in overtime.
Tomlin, who declined to say Sunday whether he would stick with Dixon against the Titans, declared Tuesday that "Dennis is going to lead us into Nashville."
His only other choice would be veteran Charlie Batch, although Tomlin said Byron Leftwich's left knee injury has improved to the point that he will "give him some work in a limited capacity" today in practice and go from there.
Dixon, making his third NFL start and only fourth appearance in his third season, completed 18 of 26 passes for 236 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He also was sacked three times for 25 yards in losses and scrambled twice for 4 yards.
Tomlin acknowledged Dixon's inaccurate throws against Atlanta in which he had three open receivers on three third downs and bounced passes in front of them. He also indicated that he witnessed improvement in Dixon's play in the second half.
"I thought he got better as the game went on," Tomlin said. "There were some situations early in the game where he was delivering the ball to the appropriate target but it was falling short."
Tomlin thought the reason for those off-target throws was due to aggression not temerity.
"In some of those situations, they were bringing heat or potentially bringing heat, and he was speeding up the delivery process, which caused some fundamental issues with his delivery. It's actually the opposite of being tentative. So that's encouraging. But I'd like the throws to be more on target."
They were, in the second half, when Dixon completed 8 of 10 passes for 145 yards after going 10 of 16 for 91 and an interception that was poorly underthrown in the first half.
"I thought as the game wore on, he was not only making the routine plays, but he was creating a little bit," Tomlin said. "I thought that stepping up in the pocket and hitting Hines [Ward] on a third-and-9-plus was a signature play of the game. Of course, we're going with him because we feel he's going to continue to evolve, not just in practice, but when he steps into stadiums as well."
The Steelers received good news on Max Starks after they and the offensive tackle were told immediately after the Atlanta game that it appeared he had a high ankle sprain.
It is not a high ankle sprain, but a normal sprain, which is much less severe to the point that Tomlin would not rule out Starks this week.
"He might be able to do something in the latter part of the week and may be able to make himself available in this football game," Tomlin said. "Hopefully, that's the case; if not, we're very comfortable with Jonathan Scott. He's been a big addition to our outfit, and we expect him to play great ball if Max is unavailable."
That settled who will start if Starks cannot, and Tomlin asserted that Flozell Adams will not be moved there.
"He's a right tackle," Tomlin declared, referring to Adams.
If Starks is unavailable, Tony Hills likely will become the third tackle for the Tennessee game, Tomlin said, although he would not rule out Ramon Foster making a play for the job.
Tomlin was not sure of the status of five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton for the Tennessee game other than he has a hamstring injury. He and the staff want to see how Hampton responds during the week.
"We're hopeful that he may be able to do something, but, at this point, it's up in the air," Tomlin said.
Chris Hoke, the nine-year veteran who has been Hampton's backup since 2004, would start in his place. He has started 17 games, including the playoffs, but none last season when Hampton did not miss a start.
The concern is the heat in Nashville. The coaches rotated their three backup defensive linemen with the starters often against Atlanta and would like to do that again Sunday. Hoke is the only pure nose tackle, but backup ends Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood have taken turns at the position, just in case.
"It's something we've done every September or try to because those guys are playing more football than they did in the preseason," Tomlin explained. "We want energy. We want to be able to win the line of scrimmage and playing fresh bodies is the way to do that."
Tomlin explained why he would not "guarantee" in a recent radio interview that Ben Roethlisberger would start the fifth game of the season when he returns from his suspension.
"I'll answer why I answered it that way: In order for us to see our way out of this situation, we need to have a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mentality. We need to be singularly focused on what's in front of us. That's the only way we're going to work ourselves out of this situation.
"As the leader of the outfit, I'm going to subscribe to that as well. I refuse to ponder the potential or hypothetical scenarios that wait for us at the end of this situation. I'm in the midst of it. I'm living it, like our football team is. I refuse to address any other element of it other than what we have right now, which is a Tuesday."
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published September 15, 2010 4:00 AM