No 'coaster ride for Steelers

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Both postgame locker rooms crackled with descriptions of that rickety, mythical favorite -- the old emotional roller coaster, and nothing short of the Steelers' opening day victory was officially attributed to the notion that Mike Tomlin's team refused to ride it.

For four full quarters and a couple minutes of overtime, they seemed to prefer the Log Jammer, the 9-9 tie that had actually spun off a tedious merry-go-round of punts and field-goal attempts, half as many missed as made.

This was a good thing for the home team, because if there was one guy in black and gold virtually predestined to ride the emotional roller coaster, it was Dennis Dixon, the starting quarterback on the first critical day of Roethlisberger-free offense. Dixon might well have been in that roller coaster line repeatedly, jumping into the first car, soaring and diving with his arms raised and a long scream escaping his lungs.


"I'm an optimist by nature," Tomlin said. "I understand your question, but we just don't live in that world. Our glass is half full. We were excited about an opportunity for [Dixon] to play some good football for us. His first time out as a starter, he took us into a hostile environment [at Baltimore in December] and took us to overtime, put us in a position to win [but didn't]. He was in a better environment today to say the least at Heinz Field, so we were optimistic about those chances for obvious reasons."

Dixon was excited, too. Way too excited, by his own admission. So there were some bad passes, then there were some worse passes. He was picked off once, and Falcons defensive ends John Abraham and Chauncey Davis dropped Dixon passes that hit them right in the mitts. Atlanta corner Christopher Owens couldn't control another one.

Were it not for a good punt, a bad punt, and a perfect kick-out block by tight end/fullback/H-back/Put You On Your Back David Johnson, Dixon might be looking at a long week of Dixon's-not-the-answer chattering.

But Daniel Sepulveda booted the Steelers out of grave danger in the final two minutes of regulation, Atlanta's Michael Koenen launched his only bad punt of a long day as the overtime began, and Rashard Mendenhall cut behind Johnson's explosive drive block at the start of an electrifying 50-yard touchdown run on the Steelers' first offensive play of sudden death.

"You know how this business is," said Mendenhall, who averaged 3.3 yards on 21 carries until that last one. "It's a roller coaster."

Yeah, I keep hearing that.

"It felt good," Dixon said after his first NFL victory as a starter. "Going to overtime, I had déjà vu after last year with Baltimore [where his interception led to a Ravens victory]. My whole motto was to be focused and get into field-goal range."

From all testimony, Dixon had good focus for most of this difficult test and surely made enough good throws to keep the Steelers afloat, but an offense that went 4 for 14 on third down and 0 for 2 in the red zone is not going to cut it on days when the defense is turning in anything but the kind of superb performance Dick LeBeau's guys authored Sunday.

Flozell Adams' Steelers debut at right tackle for injured Willie Colon was not distinguished, including a false start and a whiff on Kroy Biermann that led to a fourth-quarter sack. Mike Wallace ascendency into Santonio Holmes' old spot wasn't evident until he toasted Falcons safety Erik Coleman for 52 yards in the second half. Even Mendenhall, thanks to that 50-yard overtime burst, barely avoided a fifth consecutive sub-100 yard game stretching back to Dec. 6.

"It's great to get a win like this because I think everyone was doubting us," said Dixon, who wound up 18 for 26 for 236 yards and one pick. "If we don't doubt ourselves, we've got a pretty good ball club."

It won't be going 0-4 in Roethlisberger's absence at least, but it won't get far if Dixon's going to be taking back-to-back sacks in the final minutes of tied game, as he did late Sunday.

"We were in a three-receiver concept, but they were dropping eight, so there wasn't much we could do," Dixon said. "But I've got to learn to get out of there and throw it away."

Oh, he has got a ton to learn, but fortunately, at this level, all wins are created equal.

"It was a winning effort," Tomlin said of the third-string quarterback. "The scoreboard says it."

True dat. There's no room on the scoreboard to point out that, for example, Atlanta middle linebacker Curtis Lofton had 11 tackles and helped keep the Steelers out of the end zone for more than 62 minutes.

"It was a roller coaster," Lofton said. "Ups and downs. That's what football is all about."

Uh-huh. Try to stay off that thing.

Gene Collier: .


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