Published September 14, 2010
PITTSBURGH – Dennis Dixon didn't throw a touchdown pass, stretch the defense with his running or do anything to suggest he won't be back on the bench when Ben Roethlisberger's suspension is over.
What mattered most to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was that Dixon didn't lose.
Dixon will be Pittsburgh's starting quarterback Sunday at Tennessee, even though the injured Byron Leftwich may return to practice as early as Wednesday. Until Leftwich injured a left knee ligament during the final exhibition game Sept. 2, Leftwich was expected to start throughout Roethlisberger's four-game suspension.
Tomlin, who is choosing his starter on a week-to-week basis while Roethlisberger is out, said Dixon did enough things well during a season-opening 15-9 overtime victory over Atlanta to stay in the lineup.
Dixon completed 18 of 26 passes for 236 yards and an interception in his second NFL start, shaking off a series of underthrown passes early in the game to become more accurate in the second half. Even if, Tomlin said Tuesday, "I'd like the throws to be more on target."
"There were some situations early in the game where he was delivering the ball to the appropriate target, but it was falling short," Tomlin said. "I thought as the game wore on, he was creating a little bit. I thought him stepping up in the pocket and hitting Hines (Ward) on a third-and-9-plus was the signature play of the game. Of course, we're going with him because we feel he's going to continue to evolve."
Dixon probably won't have left tackle Max Starks to protect his blind side against the Titans (1-0), who beat Oakland 38-13 behind Chris Johnson's 142 yards rushing.
Starks (sprained left ankle) probably can't practice until the end of the week at the earliest, which means former Bills lineman Jonathan Scott might start. Right tackle Flozell Adams won't move to left tackle, although that's his natural position.
Pittsburgh also may be without nose tackle Casey Hampton (hamstring), an excellent run defender and probably the one defensive player the Steelers would least like to lose before going against Johnson, the NFL's top rusher last season with 2,006 yards. Hampton would be replaced by Chris Hoke.
Leftwich talked optimistically last week of playing this week, but Tomlin doesn't want to disrupt an offense that already is adjusting to being without Roethlisberger. Leftwich is less mobile than Dixon, and his injury makes him even slower still.
While Dixon's running ability is perhaps his greatest asset — he had a 24-yard touchdown run in his first start against Baltimore last season — he ran only twice against Atlanta.
"It's probably the way the game unfolded," Tomlin said. "I'm not opposed to it. What I am for is running up the scoreboard. If him running helps that, I' all in."
To prevent an injury, Tomlin clearly seems reluctant to penciling in a certain number of running plays for Dixon per game, much like Ohio State does with multidimensional quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
"Of course, we're trying to keep Dennis upright," Tomlin said. "The National Football League is a little more violent than college football. Terrelle Pryor is probably just as big or bigger than a lot of guys trying to tackle him. It's a different story on Sunday, and that's an element of it."
The Steelers have lost seven of eight at Tennessee, including a 31-14 decision during their Super Bowl-winning season in 2008, Tomlin's second as coach.
"It's a tough place to play, particularly if they get you behind the chains or behind on the scoreboard," Tomlin said. "They're an attacking, penetrating group up front. They create negative plays. It's demoralizing. It ignites their fans. It's what playing on the road in the National Football League is about. It's an awesome challenge."