Rookie QB heats up

With the exception of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers haven't had much success drafting quarterbacks this decade. They think Dennis Dixon will change that, and Monday he showed us why.

LATROBE – Every three years or so, the Steelers draft a quarterback in the fifth round and let him rot on the bench before cutting him.

Tee Martin threw one pass in two seasons. Brian St. Pierre threw one in four seasons. Omar Jacobs never made the team.

But Dennis Dixon is different, according to the Steelers, who like the 6-3, 195-pounder so much they drafted him four months after he underwent surgery to repair a torn left ACL.

They like him even better after Monday's practices. Dixon was hot in the morning, and in the afternoon he directed the first team smartly down the field in the one-minute drill before stalling inside the 10. Coach Mike Tomlin was asked if Dixon was lost with the offense, and Tomlin said, "That would be a stretch."

Lack of understanding proved to be Jacobs' undoing two years ago, but Dixon appears to be well ahead of the curve.

"Dixon's further along than Omar was," said receiver Hines Ward. "He has a better feel and a better knowledge of the coverages. Omar just had a hard time distinguishing the different coverages.

"Yes, our defense is hard for any quarterback, but Dixon's doing a helluva job. He's still making mistakes, but when he's on point he's on point."

Dixon was on point Monday morning. With Ben Roethlisberger limited by a sore groin, the rookie received more repetitions and made the most of them with his best practice at camp. In the red zone drill, Dixon threw touchdown passes to Dallas Baker, Willie Reid and Matt Spaeth, which was a gold rush for a team that was blanked in the same drill Friday night. Dixon was asked after practice if he's feeling a little comfortable.

"I'm feeling a lot comfortable," he said. "I'm ready for the true test of a preseason game, as far as getting hit, as far as contact. That's when I put the knee to the test for sure."

Dixon tore the ACL in his left knee last Nov. 3. He hid the injury from coaches and started the next game, but had to leave in the first quarter. He underwent surgery in December, but recovered in time for his pro day April 4. On Monday, August 4, Dixon marked his ninth month of recovery. Except for the large ice pack attached to his knee, it was impossible to tell he's still in recovery mode.

"I'm totally confident in my knee and I'm going a hundred percent right now and I'm liking it," he said. Dixon needed all of his vast mobility early in camp when the Steelers threw an array of blitzes at him. He struggled with his passing – and his release point is still too low – but he didn't show any lingering effects of the injury, and now he's beginning to understand the offense and become an effective quarterback.

"Things are starting to slow down a little bit, but there's always room for improvement," he said. "I've always been a bit of a quick learner. This level is real fast, so it's all about the mental aspect." With Roethlisberger not expected to play in the preseason opener Friday, Dixon will see extended time. He said he'll be ready.

"Charlie (Batch) is helping me out a whole lot, as far as reads, what to do after looking at the defense, the safeties, whatever. It's giving me a quick edge before the snap," he said. "Ben helps in the film room. He's real talkative. When he's out there on the field he's serious and takes everything to heart and I try not to get into his little mix over there. That's when I just try to take my mental reps."

Dixon had plenty of down time Sunday night. It was Family Night at St. Vincent College, and being from Eugene, Oregon, he didn't have any visitors.

"Ooohh, the West Coast, man, that's a long way from home – a long way," he said.

But even a 3,000-mile journey begins with one step. Dennis Dixon took that step Monday.

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