Mike Tomlin is a bottom-line guy. Ask him whether the team conducted a successful training camp, and he says the results of the season will provide the answer. When he was asked to evaluate Dennis Dixon's start after last Sunday's game against the Falcons, he judged it based on the final numbers on the scoreboard.
On Tuesday, Tomlin was more expansive, specifically about how he came to the decision he announced early in his news conference: "Dennis is going to lead us into Nashville."
"It starts that we won, and I thought that he got better as the game went on," said Tomlin. "There were some third down situations early in the game where he was delivering the ball to the appropriate target, but it was falling short. As the game went on I thought that he was not only making the routine plays but creating a little bit. Stepping up in the pocket and hitting Hines down the middle of the field on a third-and-8 was a signature play in terms on how he evolved over the course of the game. We are going with him because we assume he is going to continue to evolve not only in this week's preparation but when he steps into that stadium as well."
In his second NFL start, Dixon didn't come out with a hot hand in terms of the mechanics of delivering the football to the receiver. On successive third down situations early, he seemed to aim the ball at Antwaan Randle El on one incompletion; on the next possession he skipped a ball to Mike Wallace; and on the next it was a 4-yard pass on a third-and-5.
"It was not tentative," explained Tomlin about why Dixon was coming up short on those early throws. "It probably had to do with excitement or aggression. Some of those third-down situations, they were bringing heat. He was speeding up the process, which caused some fundamental issues with his delivery. It's actually the opposite (of being tentative). He was in attack mode. It's encouraging but I would like the throws a little more on target."
When training camp opened, Tomlin's pecking order at quarterback had Byron Leftwich first and Dixon second, at least in part because of what's required from an NFL quarterback in terms of managing a game. It can be described as the difference between playing quarterback and being the quarterback.
But in those areas, Dixon's performance was solid. The Steelers were not flagged for any delay of game penalties, and they didn't have to burn any timeouts at the last second to avoid them. And while Dixon didn't call a lot of audibles, he did check out of some plays and those decisions were judged to be solid ones by the coaching staff.
"His gamesmanship was very good, not only on the field in terms of communication, but also with the offensive unit in the huddle," said Tomlin. "Also on the sidelines and in the locker room communication with coaches, he was a professional and what we expected."
What some fans expected was to see Dixon running the football more, as if the Falcons were not going to adjust their defense to what they had seen him do in the preseason. And as for designed runs, Tomlin reminded the reporter who asked the question that there is a significant difference between quarterbacks running the ball in college and doing the same thing in the NFL.
"I'm not opposed to him running," said Tomlin. "What I am for is him moving the chains and lighting up the scoreboard. If him running helps us do that, I'm all in. We are going to do what's best, not only for Dennis but our team. We are just trying to win and of course keep Dennis upright. The National Football League games are more violent of course than college football. (Ohio State's) Terrelle Pryor is just as big if not bigger than the people trying to tackle him. It's a different story on Sundays, and that's an element of it."
On one more quarterback-related issue, Tomlin explained why he would not say definitively that the starting quarterback job would be Ben Roethlisberger's when he returns from his four-game suspension.
"In order for us to see our way out of this situation, I think it's important that we have a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mentality," said Tomlin. "We need to be singly focused on what's in front of us every step of the way. That's the only way we're going to work through this situation. As a leader of the outfit, I'm going to subscribe to that as well. So I refuse to ponder the potential or the hypothetical scenarios that wait for us at the end of this situation. I'm in the midst of it. I'm living it like our football team is living it. I refuse to address any other element of it other than what we have right now, which is a Tuesday. We're preparing as a staff for the Tennessee Titans. Our guys are going to be in here tomorrow. We're going to do our best to prepare those guys, and they're going to do their best to execute the plan. And Dennis is our guy this week."