The Steelers didn't score a touchdown in four quarters of regulation, but wasted no time getting in the end zone in overtime when Rashard Mendenhall broke free for a 50-yard touchdown to give the Steelers an opening day 15-9 win over the Atlanta Falcons at Heinz Field.
"It's great to get a hard-fought win," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "I like the way our group did ride the emotional roller coaster of staying on task throughout. There were many outstanding efforts to identify but largely I thought we stayed together and played team football, and we did it until the very end."
It was back-and-forth all day with both teams hitting three field goals. The Steelers had a chance to put the game away near the end of regulation when Troy Polamalu intercepted Matt Ryan, but Jeff Reed missed from 40-yards out sending it in to overtime tied at 9-9.
After the defense stopped the Falcons on the first series in overtime, Mendenhall took off running on the first offensive play for the game-winning score. Mendenhall finished the day with 22 carries for 120 yards and the score.
Dennis Dixon completed 18 of 26 passes for 236 yards and one interception, with Hines Ward being his main target with six receptions for 108 yards.
The Steelers opened the game with the offense clicking. Mendenhall got it rolling with a four-yard carry, and Dixon completed his first pass of the game to Heath Miller for five yards. On third-and-one Isaac Redman moved the chains with a three-yard carry off left guard. Dixon hit Ward for nine yards and Redman added a two-yard carry. Mendenhall went off right guard for five yards, but Mewelde Moore was stopped for a one-yard loss on a completion from Dixon. On third-and-six Dixon was forced to scramble, coming up short with just a two-yard gain to the Falcons 34-yard line. Reed was right on target though with a 52-yard field goal, the longest in Heinz Field history, giving the Steelers an early 3-0 lead.
A pass interference penalty gave the Falcons a first-down to start their drive, but after that the defense shut them down. Matt Ryan completed a five-yard pass to Roddy White and Michael Turner added a two-yard carry. On third Ryan couldn't hit White, who was covered by James Harrison, forcing a punt.
The Steelers started their next drive at their own 13-yard line after a holding penalty on the punt. Mendenhall went off left guard for three yards and Redman added a three-yard carry up the middle. Dixon wasn't able to connect with Antwaan Randle El for the first down and had to punt it away.
The defense continued to swarm the Falcons, forcing a quick three-and-out after LaMarr Woodley sacked Ryan for a 10-yard loss. The Steelers didn't have much luck on their next drive, also going three-and-out.
The back-and-forth defensive battle continued with both teams exchanging possessions before the Falcons got moving. Turner had two short carries and Ryan hit White on the sideline for 16 yards, holding on to the ball even after his helmet popped off after the hit. Ryan connected with Harry Douglas for 13 yards to the Steelers 41-yard line, but the defense shut the door again and the Falcons were forced to punt.
Things got rolling for the offense on their next drive. Mendenhall rattled off a nine-yard run and Redman added a five-yard gain on third-and-one. Dixon hit Miller over the middle for a 17-yard gain to the 38-yard line. Ward pulled in a 21-yard reception, stretching it when he got back on his feet after not being touched while down by a Falcons defender. But just when things were clicking, linebacker Mike Peterson intercepted Dixon at the Falcons 28-yard line.
Atlanta got on a roll, but they weren't able to capitalize on the turnover. Ryan hit Douglas for 23 yards and Jarious Norwood for nine yards. Turner added two carries of five yards each and Justin Peele added a two-yard carry. Matt Bryant tried to tie the game with a 46-yard field goal, but it went wide right.
Dixon took over with 1:45 to go in the half, hitting Miller for 13 yards. Moore went around right end for no gain, and Dixon's pass to Ward was broken-up by John Abraham. On third-and-10 Dixon hit Mike Wallace for a 10-ayrd gain to the Falcons 41-yard line. Moore pulled in a four-yard reception and Dixon couldn't hit Randle El along the sideline. On third down Dixon's pass for Randle El was low, bringing on Reed for a 55-yard field goal, which hit off the right upright.
The Falcons took over at their 45-yard line where Ryan completed a 17-yard pass to Eric Weems. White pulled in a seven-yard reception, but couldn't connect with him on second down. On third down and with time running out in the half Bryant hit a 49-yard field goal to send the game into halftime tied 3-3.
Atlanta started the second half on offense, taking their first lead of the game when they moved down field for a 39-yard field goal by Bryant and a 6-3 lead.
Dixon came fighting back, hitting Wallace on a 52-yard bomb to the Falcons 26-yard line. A six-yard sack and a false start penalty moved the Steelers in the wrong direction, but didn't deter the young quarterback. On third-and-19 Dixon rolled right and hit Ward for a 17-yard gain, putting the Steelers in position for a 36-yard field goal by Reed to tie the game at 6-6.
After another exchange of possessions, the Steelers took over at their own 17-yard line. Mendenhall went up the middle for two yards and on third down Ward hung on to the ball for a 24-yard gain. Dixon went right back to Ward for a 25-yard gain to the Falcons 32-yard line. Mendenhall went off left tackle for 13 yards to the 19-yard line. The Steelers were only able to muster five more yards, calling on Reed for his third field goal of the game and a 9-6 lead.
The see-saw game continued when the Falcons got the ball back. Norwood went off right end for six yards and Turner off left tackle for three yards. On third and one Norwood moved the chains with a two-yard carry. It looked like the Steelers were going to put a stop to the drive when Ryan was sacked by Lawrence Timmons, forcing a fumble that James Harrison recovered. The Falcons challenged the call, and it was overturned, ruling it an incomplete pass. Ryan hit White on three consecutive passes for 18, six and three yards. Ryan added a 15-yard completion to Tony Gonzalez and hit White for two more short completions to the 12-yard line. The Falcons tied the game at 9-9 on Bryant's 23-yard field goal.
The Steelers weren't able to go anywhere on their next drive, but got the ball back fast courtesy of Polamalu's interception with 1:40 on the clock. The Steelers took over at the Falcons 30-yard line, staying on the ground with a three-yard run by Mendenhall and six-yard pickup by Redman. Redman was stopped for no gain on third down and Reed's 40-yard field goal went wide right sending the game into overtime.
The Falcons got the ball to start the overtime period, but the defense stopped them. Mendenhall took the first play in overtime for the 50-yard touchdown and 15-9 win.
Notes: Nose tackle Casey Hampton (hamstring) and tackle Max Starks (ankle) both left the game injured and did not return. From Tomlin on injuries: "On the injury front, Max Starks has sustained an ankle sprain; Casey Hampton sustained a hamstring injury. I don't know the extent of the injury; we'll have more information next time we sit down and talk. Other than that normal bumps and bruises and we'll march on to Week 2."