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Peter King> GAME PLAN

More ColumnsEmail Peter KingFollow Peter King on Steelers QB Dixon headlines Week 1 Highlights

Minnesota should've relied on Peterson -- not a rusty Favre -- in the fourth quarter

In his second career start, Dennis Dixon looks to fill in admirably for suspended Steelers signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger.


NEW ORLEANS -- Seen this week's slate of 16 games? It's as competitive a group as I've seen in a while. Maybe not the best slate of games, but the kind of schedule that makes me think: Glad I'm not in a knockout pool this year.

Atlanta-Pittsburgh. How do you pick that one? Atlanta, with a great summer and a lot of new defensive pieces in place to be a top-10 unit. Pittsburgh, with a controversial summer, with no Ben Roethlisberger, playing a kid quarterback in the opener. There are many subplots in a great opening weekend, and one that stands out in particular is Dennis Dixon's role with the Steelers.

Dixon's a great story, a mobile quarterback with a strong arm when he was at Oregon, where he was also a good outfielder with a seemingly bright baseball future. He was picked by the Braves in the fifth round of the 2007 MLB draft and selected in the fifth round (how coincidental) by the Steelers a year later.

Dixon failed at baseball, hitting .174 in a summer trial with a rookie league team. Then he shredded his ACL in the 2007 football season and his draft stock plummeted. Though he wasn't 100 percent by NFL draft day, Dixon piqued the interest of a lot of teams, and the Steelers took a chance on him as a developmental player. Pittsburgh has always been willing to take draft chances with interesting prospects -- Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El (college quarterbacks, NFL receivers), Kordell Stewart (college quarterback, NFL slash). Now that Dixon's healthy and has a chance to play, I'm anxious to see if the Steelers' investment is a smart one.

He's started one game to this point -- a pressure-packed road game against Baltimore last season on a November Sunday night when Roethlisberger was out with headaches. Despite having practiced only about 30 percent of the plays on the Steelers' offensive playsheet that night, Dixon played well in spots and sparked the Steelers, who lost 20-17 in overtime. He won the players that night. Though he completed only 12 of 26 throws, he proved he wasn't intimidated by the crowd or the Ray Lewis-led D. "He really grew up a lot that night,'' Ward said, "and the guys on our side came out of the game with a lot of respect for him.''

Now it's chapter two. If Dixon fails to lead the team or play well, I'm sure Mike Tomlin won't hesitate to go to his Old Man River, Charlie Batch. Dixon doesn't think it will come to that.

"The difference between last year and this year,'' he told me this week, "is now I feel totally comfortable in this offense. I'd be a fool to say my head wasn't spinning at Baltimore last year. I didn't practice with the ones [the first team], never mind that I didn't have the playbook down either. But now, going into this year, I feel so much better. And I don't feel like it's all on me. Coach Tomlin told me, 'Just ride the bus. We don't expect you to go out and win the game. Just play.' ''

What's going to be fun Sunday at Heinz Field is that the Falcons have added speed to their defense, including first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon, who chased mobile quarterbacks in spread offenses in the Big 12 while at Missouri. Dixon is the rabbit with the strong arm on the other side of the ball. I love what we're about to see.

"It's going to be interesting,'' Dixon said. "Obviously, the [run-pass versatility] is a threat they've got to game plan for. But I'm not just a guy looking to run. I never have been. I really love throwing the ball. I want to be a complete quarterback.''

This week, I said to Dixon, it's going to be interesting to see not only him have his first real chance at taking control, but also Mike Wallace, who replaces former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes in the lineup. I've said this all summer: Wallace is going to approximate Holmes' impact, and soon. "The threat of the deep ball is going to be huge with Mike,'' Dixon said. "I can't overthrow him. I'm really looking forward to playing with him.''

Actually, Dixon's just looking forward to playing.

"Can't wait,'' he said. "I'm just looking forward to seize the moment and have fun.''

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/peter_king/09/10/game.plan/index.html#ixzz0z9nuEfiL

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