At one point in the preseason, it seemed as though Coach Mike Tomlin planned to be coy about who would be the starting quarterback for the Steelers in their opener against the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 12 at Heinz Field.
When asked on Aug. 27 when he might pick an opening game starter, Tomlin said, "It's probably beneficial for us to hold our cards. Coach (Mike) Smith does an awesome job in Atlanta. I have a great deal of respect for him. But I'd imagine it's going to be increasingly difficult for him to play us if we don't provide that information for him."
But on Monday, Sept. 6, Tomlin was definitive.
"Dennis Dixon will start for us at quarterback this week," said Tomlin. "He'll be backed up by Charlie Batch. Dennis has had a very productive preseason and training camp. He went into the training camp as a young guy, second in the pecking order behind Byron Leftwich. He did a nice job. He made it extremely competitive. He wedged himself into a battle and got some first-team reps in some preseason games. Largely, we've been very impressed with how he's handling himself and the situation, but the same could be said for all the guys. I think they were extremely professional, very competitive and helpful to one another, genuinely the type of competition you're looking for across all positions when you're putting together a football team. It's been a good process for us."
Said Dixon, "It's an honor. It's every quarterback's dream to get an opportunity to start in the National Football League. My number's called now, so I'm going to have fun with it. I'm happy, but then again there's a lot of work to be done. I just want to be even-keeled and put my team in the best situation."
The process began with what Tomlin described as a pecking order, and it went this way: Byron Leftwich, Dixon, Batch. Heading into the preseason finale, that's the way it still seemed to be, because after Ben Roethlisberger started and got some work in the no-huddle, Leftwich entered the game, with most of the first-team offense still on the field.
But Leftwich sprained a knee on a play in which he completed a pass to Emmanuel Sanders, and Tomlin characterized him on Monday as doubtful for the opener. With Leftwich removed from the process, Tomlin decided to go with Dixon.
"I was pretty clear about the pecking order when we went into training camp," said Tomlin. "It was based on a lot of things – the No. 1 thing being the performance and the level of comfort we had with the men in the spring. But also a factor in that pecking order was Charlie's durability leading up to that point, or lack of durability. He's a guy who's been on IR a little bit the last couple of years, and that was one of the reasons he was third in the pecking order. But also, Charlie requires very few snaps to be ready to play football at an acceptable level. It benefited us. It didn't benefit him personally in terms of the number of snaps given. It benefited Dennis in terms of the opportunity to give us a number of quality looks, and looks we're comfortable with. We know if called upon Charlie Batch is going to give us winning football."
One of Tomlin's stated goals of the preseason was to get Dixon a lot of repetitions, because of his relative inexperience, but he also wanted to make sure Roethlisberger had a productive training camp before being required to serve his suspension, which was reduced to four games by Commissioner Roger Goodell on Sept. 3.
Roethlisberger ended up starting the final three preseason games, and he completed 14 of the 20 passes he attempted. Dixon attempted 32 passes and completed 23, with two touchdowns and two interceptions, both of which came in the team's loss in Denver. Leftwich started the preseason opener, and he finished 11-of-24, with one touchdown and no interceptions. Batch played mostly in the final two preseason games, and he finished 7-for-10, with one touchdown and one interception.
"I would love to be out there," said Batch, "but right now I'm into the role I've always been, and that's one snap away from being ready to go. Either way I'll be ready to go."
Tomlin said Dixon will not be on a short leash in what will be his second NFL start. The first came last Nov. 29 in Baltimore against the Ravens, when Roethlisberger was sidelined with a concussion and Batch was out with a broken wrist.
"I haven't pondered that thought whatsoever," said Tomlin when asked whether he might utilize a quick hook. "At this juncture, we're focused on preparing Dennis, and ultimately playing Dennis, and we're going to be hopeful in regards to how we perform."
In the run-up to Dixon's first NFL start, there was some expectation that Roethlisberger would be ready to go, but when he wasn't cleared to play by late in the week, the Steelers had to go with Dixon. Because of that, Dixon got through much of that week under the radar in terms of the media attention normally accompanying such a move. That won't be the case this time.
"I'm proceeding with the assumption that he's going to be above the line in terms of how he handles those things," said Tomlin. "This guy is not a rookie, this is not his first start. He started a game for us a year ago. He's been around and in the room on a good football team in some big moments, in preparation for big moments. I would imagine he has learned from those things. I would imagine he's going to call on all of that experience – not only here, but this guy played some big-time ball out in Oregon and has been in some hostile environments and led his team in a spectacular way. His life has led him to this point, and I expect him to deal with that in an above the line manner."
INJURY UPDATE: Tomlin said, "We have Bryant McFadden coming back this week, and he appears to be fine. We have some guys we held out of the last preseason game for bumps and bruises from the third preseason game – James Farrior, James Harrison, Antwaan Randle El. All of those guys are ready to go. We're a healthy football team going into Week 1, which is a good thing."