By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers found a winning combination with nearly no mistakes on offense and a stifling defense in a 15-9 overtime decision against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
Dennis Dixon got his second NFL start at quarterback for the Steelers, and his statistics weren’t bad. He was 18-for-26 for 236 yards and just one interception. But he was sacked three times, rarely moved from the pocket, should have had three other picks and short-armed several throws that could have gone for first downs.
“It was a winning effort,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “The scoreboard says so. … I don’t necessarily call (him) tentative, but he was a little off-target, at least early in the game. But what I did like is that there was no panic in him or anyone.
“We kind of stayed status quo to allow him to get himself squared away, and he delivered some big-time throws in the second half and relied on veteran men like Hines Ward.”
Ward got loose for consecutive receptions for 25 and 24 yards midway through the fourth quarter to set up Jeff Reed’s third field goal for a 9-6 lead. Dixon also hit Mike Wallace for a 52-yarder, so his remaining completions basically were dinks and dump-offs.
This type of game plan leads to limited offense and low scores, which would appear to play into the Steelers’ hands if this game is an indication.
“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve had a lot of close ball games,” Steelers defensive tackle Chris Hoke said. “That’s Steeler football. Since my rookie year, 10 years ago, it seemed like all the games have come down to the fourth quarter and are close games.
“Some go into overtime. So, we’re ready for that, and we’re going to keep going out there and playing tough defense. The offense, they did all right, but they’ll keep working at it and will get better every week.”
Rashard Mendenhall ran for 50 yards on the first play from scrimmage in overtime to give the Steelers their only touchdown on the day and a 15-9 victory. But he didn’t do much other than that, a 3.3-yard average on 21 carries. He played raced around right end cleanly, however, for the winning score and appeared to run hard all day.
“Once I got to the outside, I knew it would be on me against their safety, and I just had my eyes on him the whole time,” Mendenhall said. “He nicked my foot, so I had to concentrate on staying up and staying inbounds. … The game was over, ending like that, so I was really excited when I got into the end zone.
“In the run game, you’ve got to be patient, and it’s a lot of hard work,” Mendenhall said. “You wait all game for something like that to open up, and it finally happened in overtime. … Several times, I had one-on-one, and couldn’t break loose. But that time, he was further off and couldn’t catch me.”
The Steelers’ offense had poor field position many times during the game, starting six possessions at their 20 or worse, but the club’s defense was stout throughout. The Steelers held Atlanta to 297 total yards and just 58 on the ground with Michael Turner averaging 2.2 yards per carry.
“I thought our defense played well all day,” Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior said. “We held them to three field goals and gave the offense the ball in overtime with a chance to win the game. We gave them two chances.”
Farrior referred to late in regulation when safety Troy Polamalu read the play perfectly, stepped in front of Roddy White, picked off Matt Ryan’s pass and amazingly stayed inbounds. That gave the Steelers the ball at the Atlanta 30. After three plays netted nine yards, Jeff Reed missed a 40-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.
“It was a called defense, the right call, but Troy made the play,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “It was Troy making the call work. … It was a great play, a great individual play. We gave them something different to see. It’s one thing to talk about it, but it was all Troy. He went out and made a big play.”
In overtime, Atlanta got the ball first and was set back on its 9 due to a holding call. The Falcons got just one first down before the Steelers forced a punt.
“That was a big-time defensive stop, and we definitely had a great start today,” Farrior said. “We held them to three field goals in key situations, and that was crucial to our win today.”
Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel agreed.
“I think we did real good, overall, especially playing against a guy like Michael Turner,” Keisel said. “(But) teams are going to test us, because we’re old and washed-up. So, teams are going to test us to see if we can play.
“(But) it felt good to keep them out of the end zone. We’re happy with the start, but we’re not patting ourselves on the back too much. We have to go out and play this way every week.”
Especially if the offense is as conservative as it was against the Falcons.
“It felt good,” Dixon said. “Going to overtime, I got some deja’ vu after last year in Baltimore, but I wanted to just mentally focus and get into field-goal range. Obviously, we wanted the game to be over (in regulation).
“But overtime gave us an opportunity to go out there and play again. Obviously, we seized the moment. The defense did what they needed to do, and we did, too. … I like I was a little too excited in the first half, but I’m happy just to have a guy like Hines Ward to talk to and throw to when I need it.
“Obviously, I didn’t have a short leash out there,” Dixon added. “Mike Tomlin harped on that all week. The entire playbook was in there today, and I just wanted to execute. Everything’s not always going to go my way, and I can’t try to do everything myself. It had to be a total team effort, and it was today.”
With the Steelers defense giving the team the best chance to win.