By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — When third-year pro Dennis Dixon was told to step in with the first team during practice Monday afternoon, it was the first time he knew for sure that he would be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting quarterback in the regular-season opener against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday at Heinz Field.
Dixon took all the first-team reps Monday, while 13-year veteran Charlie Batch again will be relegated to a backup role. For Dixon, it’s a dream come true to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, and both he and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believed there would be no constraints like there were in his one start last year.
“I think the playbook is totally wide open now,” Dixon said. “We’ll come in on Wednesday, get our game plan and go from there. I’m going to take pride in playing quarterback for the Steelers and work hard with my teammates to make sure that we’re always on the same page.
“I feel real focused on the game now. I feel mentally focused on the game, and the No. 1 thing is communication, getting a feel for things with the guys, and I’m going to take all of that very seriously. … The other guys have been there, done that in this league, and I’m going to take advantage of that.”
Tomlin noted that Byron Leftwich was listed as doubtful, as his sprained left knee heals over the next 2-4 weeks, and also discussed what went into his decision to start Dixon.
“Dennis has had a very productive preseason and training camp,” Tomlin said. “He went into the training camp as a young guy, second in the pecking order behind Byron Leftwich. He did a nice job and made it extremely competitive. He waged a battle and got some first-team reps in some preseason games.
“Largely, we’ve been very impressed with how he’s handled himself in game situations. … There was a specific pecking order in camp, and Charlie’s durability or lack of durability added into it. This is a guy who’s been on IR a little bit the past couple years, but he also requires very little snaps to be prepared to play football at an acceptable level.”
Batch wasn’t thrilled with the decision, but he played the good soldier that he’s always been.
“That’s what it’s been, so I guess he felt he had to base his decision off of that, and he had to go with it,” Batch said. “Mike basically announced it to the team, and that was it. I would like to be out there, but right now this is the role that I’ve always been since I got here.
“And that’s being one snap away from getting out there, so I’ll always be ready to go. (And) I’ll be doing everything that I’ve basically been doing since I helped Ben earlier in his career. I’ll do the same thing with Dennis. I’ll let him play, of course, but I’ll be like another set of eyes for him.”
Veteran wide receiver Hines Ward offered an opinion on both quarterbacks.
“Charlie’s been around, but Dennis … we have to treat him the same way we treated Ben when he first got here,” Ward said. “We have to condense our playbook to where he understands it good and have him go out there and not try to do too much.
“And for us wideouts, we have to go out there and help him as much as possible, make the hard catches and make the routine plays so he can gain confidence as the game goes. One thing you can’t teach is the athleticism that he has and speed.
“A lot of defensive coordinators, when you have a quarterback who can use his legs like Dennis, it changes your whole game plan,” Ward added. “Some teams might blitz him, and some might sit back to see if he can read coverages. … But we need to go out to help our defense as much as possible.”
Some believe the Steelers’ defense will need to carry the team during those opening four games while Ben Roethlisberger is serving a suspension, but outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley had a slightly different take.
“We want to be on top of our game the whole season, not just the opening four games,” Woodley said. “We want to be good all year, no matter who’s playing quarterback. We want to be at our best from start to finish, and we better be that way if we want to make the playoffs. … Hopefully, we can be better than we were during the 2008 season.
“That’s what you always want to be. Anything less is not our goal. We want to be better. We all worked harder in the offseason, and that’s what you need to do to be a better defense. We’ve looked pretty good so far, from OTAs through training camp and the preseason, but now we get a chance to get out there in the regular-season games. And we’ll see where we are come Sunday.”
Notes: There were two number changes: LB Stevenson Sylvester took No. 55, and RB Jonathan Dwyer got No. 27. … Antonio Brown is the leading candidate at kick- and punt-returner with Antwaan Randle El backing him up on punts and Mewelde Moore on kickoffs. … Former Steelers tight end Mark Bruener has been added to the team’s scouting department as a college scout…..Cornerback Bryant McFadden (pectorial) returned to practice.