Quarterback Dennis Dixon's ability to run -- whether his coaches want him to or not -- drew so much attention this summer that his passing talents were overlooked.
Dixon ranked fourth among all NFL quarterbacks in the preseason with at least 30 pass attempts, producing a 71.9 completion rate. Those above him were Jake Delhomme (79.2), Aaron Rodgers (77.4) and Tom Brady (74.0).
That rate of success was not a fluke, either. While Dixon did run well at the University of Oregon, his passing is what made him a Heisman Trophy candidate. He holds Oregon's career accuracy record, completing 63.9 percent of his passes. And he also set a school record for a season, completing 67.7 percent of his passes in 2007 before a torn ACL in his left knee ended his season Nov. 3.
Yet, it's the threat of him to run that has grabbed everyone's attention, even the opponent's, such as Atlanta coach Mike Smith, whose team opens the season Sunday against Dixon at Heinz Field.
"Dennis creates issues with the skill set he has as a quarterback in terms of his athleticism," Smith said. "I think that is something that we are going to have to make sure we are 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 and 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. I think that is probably one of the biggest things that we are going to have to do."
Smith sounded like many an opposing coach when the Steelers had Kordell Stewart at quarterback.
The Steelers tightened the reins on Dixon in his only start in November in Baltimore because they had no healthy backup after Tyler Palko, who only joined them that week. Still, Dixon ran for a 24-yard touchdown, threw a 33-yard scoring pass and had the Steelers in front, 17-14, in the fourth quarter of a game they eventually lost in overtime after a Dixon interception.
Tomlin has said he will give Dixon the green light to do what comes naturally Sunday and that his quarterback knows the offense much better than he did in November.
"Just in general, his overall mastery of our offense," Tomlin explained. "The fluid understanding of where to distribute the football, the understanding of protections, I just think it's the natural maturation process that a young player goes through, and he's in the process of becoming a veteran-like player. Playing is a big part of that and that's why this opportunity he's getting is so big for him personally."
Dixon ran for 583 yards his senior season at Oregon and his 1,208 career yards were the most by a Ducks quarterback.
"I feel I will [have more freedom], but then again, I have to manage the game, whatever that is," Dixon said. "Regardless if it's a pass or a run, as long as I'm effective. I don't have to take control of the whole game. I have a lot of playmakers out there, all I have to do is manage the game."
Dixon, drafted in the fifth round in 2008, will be opposed by Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, the third overall pick in that draft. This will be Dixon's second NFL start; it will be Ryan's 31st. Dixon has spent much of his time watching Ben Roethlisberger from the sideline. Ryan has been in the middle of it the past two seasons.
"The only way I know it is to have gone out there and played from the start," said Ryan, a Philadelphia area native who played at Boston College. "I think there are good things from both sides, good things you can learn from being in the system for a while, going out there two or three years into the system and playing. But at the same time I feel like I've learned a lot in the first two years."
Maurkice Pouncey will become only the second Steelers offensive lineman to start the first game of his rookie season since at least the middle of the 1960s.
The only other one? Mike Webster? Craig Wolfley? Dermontti Dawson? Alan Faneca? Kendall Simmons?
No. According to research by the public relations staff back to the mid-1960s, Marvel Smith is the only rookie to start the first game of the season during that period. Smith, who played most of his career at left tackle, started his first game at right tackle in 2000.
"It's a great honor but I have to handle it the right way," Pouncey said.
Tomlin said he has no concern about making this particular player the first rookie starter since he became coach in 2007.
"No not at all. That's the reason Maurkice is in the lineup, because he doesn't play like a rookie," Tomlin said. "Quite frankly, I hadn't played a bunch of rookies; I think my record in that regard speaks for itself. The fact that he's in the lineup would lead you to believe that he doesn't perform in a rookie fashion in regards to those things."
Of the 22 who will start against Atlanta, six were drafted while Tomlin has been coach: Pouncey, Dixon, running back Rashard Mendenhall, receiver Mike Wallace and linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. Another, David Johnson, is a part-time starter at fullback.