Can Dennis Dixon lead the Steelers?

PITTSBURGH -- With a large group of media surrounding him like NFL defenders, Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon stood tall in the pocket this week while fielding questions.

The inexperienced Dixon sounded confident and calm, ready for the storm that's about to take place in what will be his second career NFL start. With franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended four games for violating the league's personal conduct policy, Pittsburgh is pinning its hopes early in the season on the arm -- and feet -- of Dixon.

The Steelers have won an NFL-best seven straight season openers. But that streak is in jeopardy without Roethlisberger under center and a good Atlanta Falcons team visiting Heinz Field Sunday as a slight favorite.

Dixon is in an odd spot as the 2010 Steelers are not his team. But it's his starting quarterback job for the time being.

"It seems so surreal for me, something I tired to envision as a young kid," Dixon said. "So, to open up the season at Heinz Field, with all these great fans, it's going to be a sight to see. But I still just have to go out there and play football."

What has been a struggle for the Steelers' coaching staff is blending Dixon's skills with how they want a quarterback to run the offense. Pittsburgh would like Dixon to progress more to his second and third reads and let its skill players make plays, while Dixon instinctively uses his feet when the first option isn't avaliable.

Dixon has tremendous athleticism and has always been a running quarterback. It's a major part of what made him a Heisman Trophy candidate at the University of Oregon.

But coordinator Bruce Arians' offense is not designed for a scrambling quarterback. Whether the team adjusts to allow "Dennis to be Dennis," or the Steelers make Dixon adjust to play more like Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch, who rarely run past the line of scrimmage, is one of the major storylines for Pittsburgh entering Sunday's game.

This week team captain and receiver Hines Ward offered his advice to allow Dixon to be comfortable doing what he does best.

"If protection breaks down and he's unsure about coverage, take off, run," Ward said. "I like Dennis with the ball in his hands when he's running. Good things happen when he does that."

The Steelers are worried about the possibility of turnovers. In all likelihood, Pittsburgh will need to win by playing great defense and conservative on offense. That means Dixon has to be careful with the football, which he struggled to do in limited playing time with the starters this preseason.

Dixon threw for 94 yards with two interceptions, including a pick-six, in the third preseason game against the Denver Broncos. It was Dixon's chance to prove he can thrive against a first-team defense. But too many mental errors offered red flags.

Despite his inexperience, Dixon has to play more like a veteran against Atlanta. He has two experienced quarterbacks he can rely on for advice this week in Leftwich and Batch.

"Me and Charlie can help him -- me and Charlie were actually having that conversation," Leftwich said. "We pretty much know everything that he's going to be thinking about the night before the game, the day of the game, the morning of the game, two days before the game, because we've been in those situations. So me and Chuck are going to do our best to help Dennis be successful."

Dixon's NFL debut last year was a 20-17 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But Dixon showed positives, recording 145 passing yards, two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) and one interception.

Pittsburgh put Dixon in a bad spot that game because Roethlisberger, despite suffering a concussion, practiced with the team during the week and was expected to play. But health concerns forced Roethlisberger to back out at the last minute, suddenly thrusting Dixon into the starting lineup.

This time Dixon gets an entire week of preparation for his second NFL start.

"For me, it's all a matter of being comfortable and confident in what I do," Dixon said. "Once I receive the call, I have to be able to execute it to the best of my ability. And at the same time, I need to be having fun. That's real big. I cherish that, because you can’t be too serious out there."

The playbook was so limited against Baltimore that, according to Ward, the Steelers ran the same play six or seven consecutive times.

"I've never been around where we've ran the same play six or seven times," Ward said. "We were very limited with what we can call in that Baltimore game. Now we open the playbook. We didn't expand like the other guys, but the things that we have he feels comfortable with doing."

But Ward has seen many quarterbacks come and go in during his 13 seasons in Pittsburgh. Ward compared Dixon's skills to former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart's, and said Dixon could have similar success with more experience.

But for now, Dixon has to continue to improve and learn on the job. A major step in his maturation process comes Sunday.

"I [won't] ask Dennis to go out there and lead us to score 40 points," Ward said. "If he does that, that's a plus. But [we want] him to just manage the game and not turn the ball over. And the players around him, the supporting cast, we have to make plays."