Steelers one of big Week 1 stories

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:17 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- In another town and in another locker room, there may have been panic.

But behind the Steel Curtain, such a fearful reaction isn't part of the football vocabulary.

Now that the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings have gone through the ceremonial kickoff to the season, the Steelers are on the clock as one of the serious stories of Week 1.

Two-point home underdogs to the visiting Atlanta Falcons, the Steelers will be without their larger than life quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he sits out his first of four games after being accused of sexually assaulting a Georgia co-ed.

For better and for worse, Big Ben has been the story of the off-season. Now it's up to his seasoned teammates to keep the absence from being a disaster.

"That's why you have the veteran guys here," two-time Super Bowl winning receiver Hines Ward said Thursday in a quiet corner of the Steelers' locker room. "That's why this organization has always been in the mix year in and year out in terms of making the post season.

"We have guys who know what it takes. There's no over reacting here."

So when Dennis Dixon steps behind centre on Sunday for just his second career start, can it really be business as usual?

Dixon, who ran for a 24-yard touchdown against the Ravens in that lone start last season and threw for a 34-yarder, will be a factor, of course. But the real story might be whether the once-vaunted Steelers defence can regain the strength that has been so much a part of the team's success for decades.

Too many times last season the D bent in the fourth quarter, a far cry from the league's best unit the previous season. Injuries were part of that decline as was age.

With big weapons such as quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner, the Steelers will be put to the test right out of the gate. And with a young quarterback guaranteed to be nervous, the Steelers don't want to dig much of an early hole.

"We're always trying to get our offence as many opportunities as possible," said veteran Steelers' cornerback, Ike Taylor when asked how much easier they might be able to make Dixon's life.

"That's one of our goals as a defence - to give them boys as many opportunities as they need.

"We'll do what we do with Ben or without. It's business as usual around here."

And that means doing things the Steeler way. With defensive end Aaron Smith and safety Troy Polamalu healthy again, the defence has some of its teeth back.

"If we do our job and do what we do, we'll be all right," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We know there may be less room for error, but you can't go into a game thinking that way.

"We were a little banged up last year but now we want to hit the ground running when the season starts."

As much as the Steelers' coaching staff has said the playbook will be open for Dixon, it would be a shock if they didn't favour a conservative approach, especially in the early-going.

Dixon isn't going to make or break a career in his first couple of series, which is where the steady foundation of the Steelers may be his biggest asset.

"We're not going to ask him to do too much -- just go out and manage the game," Ward said. "That's all he's got to do.

"He doesn't have to force the ball anywhere. We'll try to make some plays for him to help his confidence, but It's okay to punt in this game. We've got a great punter. If he goes in with that mindset, we'll be fine."


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