Dixon faces unenviable task

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:32 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- As a football-fuelled city frets about the fall of Big Ben Roethlisberger and what his absence might mean to their beloved Steelers, the spotlight has to shine somewhere.

That it is on Dennis Dixon is the latest bizarre development in an off-season in name only for the storied NFL franchise.

Not on your fantasy football radar? Fair enough.

After all, how many fifth-round draft picks with just one modest NFL start get a chance to start the season at quarterback for a team that still perceives itself an AFC powerhouse?

A running and passing threat while starring at the University of Oregon, Dixon may, style wise, be better suited for the CFL than the Steel City. And chances are, you may hear about him for four weeks and then never again.

But for now, the ex-Duck is in luck with a chance to post bail for Roethlisberger and avoid his four-game suspension (reduced from six) becoming a death sentence for the Steelers.

"I won't lie to you, it was pretty surreal when I heard my number was called," Dixon said in an interview after practice Wednesday in a quiet Steelers locker room where all but a reporter from north of the border wandered to his stall.

"There is no question there will be some nerves early on, but after that it is just playing football."

It's a little more than that, of course.

An aging Steelers team that has already won two Super Bowls this decade was hoping to make one more run at it before summoning youth. We'll know in a month how much those plans were compromised on the March night when Roethlisberger allegedly sexually assaulted a 20-year-old female college student.

By rule, Roethlisberger was nowhere to be seen on Wednesday, banished as part of his suspension from the Steelers facility until their Week 4 game against the Ravens is in the books.

The implications of his absence are ongoing and suddenly more immediate.

That Dixon is getting a second career start -- his first was in an overtime loss to the Ravens last November -- was another twist to the Steelers saga. When appointed backup Byron Leftwich blew out his knee in the pre-season, suddenly the ball to the guy holding the clipboard for the majority of his two years as a pro.

"It's not all on him," second-year running back Rashard Mendenhall said on Wednesday. "If we can make some plays for him, life will be a whole lot easier."

Just how many plays Dixon gets has given the locals plenty to chew on over their Iron City brews.

Coach Mike Tomlin has been criticized for giving Roethlisberger the bulk of snaps during training camp and thus leaving the team ill-prepared for the first four weeks. That and Dixon's inexperience has led to speculation that the fill-in will need to operate from a Coles Notes version of the playbook.

"In no specific week is the entire playbook open," Tomlin said. "But we haven't pared down our game plan for him because of youth or inexperience. If there are limitations, it's because of the time of the season, not because Dennis is our quarterback."

One of Roethlisberger's first acts of contrition was to mentor all the men under him on the depth chart because, before he can win back a city, he needs his team to produce a couple of wins.

"Ben has been like a big brother to Dennis," said wide receiver Mike Wallace, the man tabbed to replace Santonio Holmes as a deep threat for the Steelers. "He's been going out there and coaching him up. The best thing we can do for him is make sure he's a confident player on Sunday. Then the rest of it will fall into place."

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA

TWITTER@LONGLEYSUNSPORT


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