Dennis Dixon's strong game doesn't alter Steelers' quarterback rotation
LATROBE, Pa. – Dennis Dixon is off to a running start as he tries to overtake Byron Leftwich and become the Steelers' starting quarterback during Ben Roethlisberger's suspension.
That's the problem, too.
The Steelers don't want the mobile Dixon abandoning the pocket and running while he has open receivers downfield. Not in exhibition games, not in practices and especially not when the games count.
"If he's your starter, you're not going to expose him to running the football, because they're going to break him up," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said earlier in camp. "That stuff, you can forget about that if he's the starter. He wouldn't last two ballgames."
So while Dixon's statistics were better than Leftwich's during the Steelers' 23-7 exhibition victory over Detroit on Saturday, the quarterback rotation remained unchanged during practice Monday.
Roethlisberger, who will play Saturday at the Giants after being held out against Detroit, ran with the starters. Leftwich followed him. Dixon came after that, running a package of plays designed to emphasize his quickness and versatility. But not running too much.
"And it's not necessarily with the twos (second unit) or the threes (third unit), it's a special package," Arians said Monday. "When you play without Ben, you're going to utilize all the players you have. He'll have a package, and how he plays within that package will determine how much he plays."
Nothing during practice suggested coach Mike Tomlin is altering his plan to begin the season with the far-more-experienced Leftwich at quarterback rather than Dixon, who has started only one NFL game. Roethlisberger was suspended for six games, but the Steelers anticipate the penalty being cut to four.
Leftwich was 6 of 10 for 43 yards, was sacked once and was hit multiple times against Detroit's starters. Dixon was 6 of 7 for 128 yards, a touchdown and two long completions against Lions backups, but he ran the ball six times — only one time fewer than he threw it.
"He (Dixon) was productive, but half of that production came in the fourth quarter," Tomlin said. "So we're not going to get carried away."
Wide receiver Hines Ward likes Dixon's multidimensional skills and how they will force defenses to prepare not only for Leftwich's throws from the pocket during Roethlisberger's absence, but for Dixon to take off if he can't locate a receiver.
"We have a healthy competition at quarterback. And competition brings out the best in everyone," Ward said. "Dennis, he brings an added dimension to the game than Byron doesn't. Byron's a pure pocket guy. Dennis, the one knock on him is he doesn't have the experience. The two are different but it's hard to compare two guys when their games are so different."
During practice, Dixon appeared to have gotten the message that running too much can be worse than running too little. Even if Roethlisberger's message to him appears to contradict that of his offensive coordinator.
"I always tell him to run," Roethlisberger said. "If your guy's not there pull it in and take off. He's got something that the rest of the quarterbacks in the room don't have because he can take off running and score on plays that most people wouldn't get out of the pocket on."
There was one change during practice — first-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey ran with the starters at center. The Steelers drafted him as a center, but planned to use him at right guard initially because it can be difficult for a rookie to deliver all the line blocking calls.
Apparently, that's no longer a worry. If Pouncey starts at center, he would bump Justin Hartwig, who is in the final year of his contract.
"We'll nail down a job for him (Pouncey) at some point," Tomlin said. "But to this juncture, he's been very impressive with how he's handled the responsibilities of playing both, and really playing both very well.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects 11th paragraph to remove reference to Leftwich being left-handed)