National Columnist

Sorry, Atlanta, had to root for Steelers in this one


PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger's locker is empty, but it's still there inside the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room. His name plate is attached above it. His folding chair is folded up and shoved inside. Even the six empty clothes hangers. They're hanging there.

But Roethlisberger? He's gone. And for one game, he wasn't missed.

Dennis Dixon doesn't put up Big Ben numbers, but he wins and has his teammates and coaches on his side. (US Presswire)  
Dennis Dixon doesn't put up Big Ben numbers, but he wins and has his teammates and coaches on his side. (US Presswire)  
And it was beautiful.

The Steelers didn't look particularly cohesive on offense Sunday in their 2010 opener against Atlanta, but they made enough field goals to force overtime, made enough tackles to get the ball after losing the OT coin flip, and made enough blocks to spring tailback Rashard Mendenhall for a 50-yard touchdown run and a 15-9 victory that was ugly for all sorts of reasons but beautiful for this one:

The Steelers showed Roethlisberger they can win without him.

That's what I wanted to see. Nothing against the Falcons, who have a likeable group of players and coaches, but I wanted to see the Steelers win without Roethlisberger. Because I wanted him to see it. And be further humbled by it. Apparently Roethlisberger already has shown ample humility during the early stages of the suspension, leading NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to shorten it from six games to four, but a man can never be too humbled. Especially a man like Roethlisberger, who has alienated teammates and society both with his boorish, arrogant behavior.

Two spots down from Roethlisberger's empty locker, replacement quarterback Dennis Dixon spoke to the biggest crowd of reporters in the Pittsburgh locker room after the game. Dixon's numbers were solid at 18 for 26 for 236 yards, but he hadn't played all that well. He threw no touchdowns and one interception, three other possible pickoffs were dropped by Atlanta defenders, and open receivers were frustrated by missed throws. He also allowed himself to be sacked three times, including back-to-back plays late in the fourth quarter. After the game, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin refused to say that Dixon had earned a second start by winning this one.

"We'll talk about [it] next week," Tomlin said.

Well, what did you think of Dixon's performance?

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"It was a winning effort," Tomlin said. "The scoreboard says so."

Chilly, but understandable. This wasn't a great performance by Dixon, but it was enough to win -- and in the Pittsburgh locker room, that was plenty. Players streamed to Dixon's side to offer congratulations, the kind of affection you never saw when Roethlisberger was the winning QB.

Steelers receiver Hines Ward, a team captain who has spoken bitterly about the impact of Roethlisberger's suspension -- "A situation happened off the field," Ward told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week, "and we're the ones who got to deal with it" -- was constantly in Dixon's ear Sunday, on the sideline and in the locker room at halftime, trying to calm down the third-year pro.

"Getting the confidence of my coaches happened because I have the confidence of my teammates," Dixon said after the game. "Once you get the team on your side, the coaches will follow." Grades
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons
WR Roddy White had a huge game with 13 catches for 111 yards. QB Matt Ryan ran the no-huddle well, but Atlanta is still having trouble attacking downfield. RB Michael Turner was a non-factor in the offense. The Falcons missed WR Michael Jenkins, out with a shoulder injury.
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
The defense was typical of a Steeler defense -- aggressive and physical. Troy Polamalu returned and had an immediate impact with five tackles and a pick. QB Dennis Dixon managed the game well for only his second start. The O-line is battered and the special teams still need work.
By Brian Carson
RapidReports Correspondent

Roethlisberger never got the players on his side, which has become apparent in recent months. Neither did longtime starting tailback Willie Parker, whose cocky attitude rubbed teammates the wrong way, but whose production was such that the Steelers had no choice but to accept him.

But Parker is gone, and his replacement has no such attitude issues, and that's another reason why this victory for Pittsburgh was so pleasing to watch. Good things sometimes happen to good people -- a good man like Dennis Dixon, and also an unassuming young star like Rashard Mendenhall.

Mendenhall had battled for tough yardage through regulation, with 70 yards on 21 carries, but his 22nd carry -- on the Steelers' first offensive play of overtime -- went 50 yards for the game's only touchdown. It was the same basic inside handoff that the Steelers had run all game, a play called "22-double," but this time the hole was enormous. Mendenhall exploded through it, outran Falcons safety Erik Coleman to the sideline, then kept his balance when Coleman's desperate dive netted him only a piece of Mendenhall's foot near the 20.

Pittsburgh's offensive line ran down the field to celebrate with Mendenhall, and again, that was something you never saw with Parker. He was always left to celebrate by himself after scoring. Not Mendenhall. His teammates love him.

"So happy for Rashard," said Steelers guard Trai Essex, who threw a key block on the touchdown. "He was dancing out there, doing his ballerina stuff."

Just like that, the Steelers have morphed from sordid story to fairy tale. Good things are happening to good people, and a tough victory happened for a tough team. In addition to the absence of Roethlisberger, the Steelers won despite losing their best offensive lineman (Max Starks, ankle) and defensive lineman (Casey Hampton, hamstring) during the game. They won by manhandling Atlanta anyway, turning Atlanta's offense into a one-trick pony -- Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan directed 23 of his 44 pass attempts at Roddy White (who caught 13 for 111 yards). That predictability allowed Steelers safety Troy Polamalu to jump White's out route late in regulation, intercepting a pass to set up Jeff Reed with a 40-yard field goal for the win. Reed missed with 39 seconds left, but the Steelers won in overtime.

Pittsburgh is 1-0 without Roethlisberger. Wouldn't it be beautiful if they went 4-0 without him?

Wouldn't it be beautiful if Roethlisberger returns to a locker room he has already lost, and discovers his starting job has suffered the same fate?

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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