QB Dixon in no-restrictions zone

The Falcons-Steelers series consists of shootouts and career games. Who'll provide the heroics in today's 2010 season opener?

The Steelers open the season today against the Atlanta Falcons, so Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians played gracious host and left a trail of game-plan bread crumbs for the visitors.

"First of all," Arians said, "we have a backup quarterback."

That hint derives from Dennis Dixon's start last year in Baltimore, when the mobile quarterback played under a yellow caution flag because his only available backup was the recently acquired and since-departed Tyler Palko.

Dixon ran 31 yards on a first-quarter run that was brought back by penalty, but he didn't carry again until a fourth-quarter sneak. His second official attempt was a brilliant 24-yard bolt around right end for the go-ahead touchdown with 6:32 left.

The Steelers lost in overtime, though, as Dixon finished with only three carries for 27 yards. Arians pointed to the barren depth chart to explain his caution.

Today, Dixon will step under center for the second time in his pro career, and the yellow flag has vanished.

"It's night and day from Baltimore last year to this ball game," Arians said. "Every time he's got the ball in his hands, he's a threat to run."

If the mercurial Dixon can come close to his 72-percent preseason passing, and bring balance to his game, another Falcons-Steelers shootout is in the offing.

Consider the last two meetings:

* Nov. 10, 2002 – In a 34-34 tie, Tommy Maddox threw for 473 yards and 4 touchdowns; Plaxico Burress caught 9 passes for a team-record 253 yards; and Hines Ward caught 11 for 139.

* Oct. 22, 2006 – In a 41-38 Falcons overtime win, Ben Roethlisberger and injury replacement Charlie Batch combined for 5 touchdown passes; and Ward caught 8 passes for 171 and 3 touchdowns.

"Probably the best game I had in my career," Ward said.

Ward wouldn't be the only Steelers player to ever have made that claim after playing the Falcons.

The teams have met 14 times (Steelers lead series 11-2-1) with an average score of 31-20. These Steelers have had career games against the Falcons:

* QB Bill Nelson passed for 334 yards in a 57-33 win in 1966.

* WR Roy Jefferson caught 11 passes for 199 yards and 4 touchdowns in a 41-21 win in 1968.

* QB Terry Bradshaw threw a team-record 5 touchdown passes in a 34-20 win in 1981.

* RB Barry Foster rushed for a team-record 3 touchdowns in a 45-17 win in 1993.

Who will be this year's offensive hero?

Well, Dixon's looking at a Falcons defense that finished 21st overall and 28th against the pass last season.

The few changes made by the Falcons: They drafted linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the first round, promoted defensive end Kroy Biermann past Jamaal Anderson, and signed free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson. But Robinson struggled the last two seasons (0 interceptions last year) after tearing an ACL in 2007. He also missed the preseason with a sore hamstring.

The Steelers' big change, of course, is at quarterback with Dixon in for suspended Ben Roethlisberger and injured Byron Leftwich.

Dixon enjoyed a strong camp and preseason, but in his only work against first-teamers, in Denver, he threw two interceptions – one of which was returned for a touchdown.

Arians criticized Dixon early in the preseason for taking off and running with receivers open downfield, but Arians likes what he's seen lately.

"That's part of the progression," Arians said. "I've got all the confidence in the world."

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