Dixon dicey as Steelers' No. 2 quarterback
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Spitting black clouds shrouded the back half of Steelers practice yesterday, but the potential change in Pittsburgh's atmospherics to something cold and nasty seemed completely separate from meteorology.

It wasn't just the discomfiting knowledge that the desperate Ravens lie in wait near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and it wasn't just that Ben Roethlisberger keeps getting his name in sentences that include "asymptomatic," it was more what everyone saw as Wednesday's practice wore on.

Something no one wanted to see.

Dennis Dixon running the first-team offense.

Nothing against Dixon, whose professional resume would fit on a post-it note through no fault of his own. That whirring sound you've been hearing since Monday is the collective memory of Steelers Nation straining to come up with the name beneath Charlie Batch on Mike Tomlin's depth chart.

Norm Nixon? Donna Dixon? Dan Hicks and his Hot Vixens?

Somethin' like that.

Batch came in for Roethlisberger during the overtime of the great Kansas City flameout and promptly ran his total of broken bones parallel to the number of times he has ventured off the sidelines since August 2008 -- two.

Now the high-wire act begins, and this time, no net.

Few teams operate in this league, and none in this division, without a game-experienced backup quarterback, but the Steelers will head for Baltimore the day after tomorrow without a backup who has started a single game. Even the Ravens, who are in more trouble than the Steelers, all things considered, have Troy Smith, who has at least started twice.

If something happened to Roethlisberger Sunday night, something that dislodged the 'a' from "asymptomatic," Dennis Lee Dixon, Jr. would be running an offense that already has lost four times with its $100 million franchise player fully functional.

"From a mental aspect, the game has slowed down a little bit for me, but not all the way down," Dixon said yesterday. "To be in a real game, a real regular-season game, that's gonna be different."

Funny, when Batch got hurt last August, veteran NFL passer Byron Leftwich appeared in a Steelers uniform as though he'd been teleported by football operations chief Kevin Colbert. This time, the same personnel department zeroed in on the practice squad of the Montreal Alouettes to engineer a Tyler Palko homecoming.

Circumstances were hardly identical; I get that. Batch was out for the year in the previous instance. Dixon was a rookie. An entire season lay ahead. This time, Batch could return in a couple of weeks and Dixon has had a year of video channeled into his head.

Likewise, nothing against the former Pitt gunslinger Palko, who will be the backup to the backup to Big Asymptomatic, but where's this team's Bruce Gradkowski, its J.T. O'Sullivan, its Rex Grossman, its Chris Simms, its Ryan Fitzpatrick, or is it Patrick Fitzryan?

There isn't even a Jim Sorgi in the house. Sorgi has never made a start behind Peyton Manning for Indianapolis either, but he has been around for five years and thrown 150 passes, meaning he has at least seen what it's like in what Max Starks referred to eloquently yesterday as the fire.

"Nothing replaces experience," Starks said. "Being on the field and seeing the defense, feeling the fire around you, there's no substitute for that. But I think Dennis will be an asset. He'll definitely be helping us. When you have the opportunity to learn from Charlie Batch and Ben, you learn a lot, and he's a quick decision-maker."

The Steelers quickly decided Monday that Dixon was far enough along that they would roll the dice with Dixon until Batch returns, which I'd understand more fully if they were 9-1 and leading the division by two games. With their margin for AFC error disappearing faster than November twilight, it's a significant gamble, unless you're OK with Dixon staring across at Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, et al. with a chance to be 6-5.

"We'll just really have to put it our backs along the offensive line [if Dixon were to be forced off the sidelines]," said Willie Colon. "We'd have to keep him clean. We'd have to run the ball more. We'd have to keep him in the bubble."

Sounds like good advice any time, actually.

It's hard to know what Dixon might bring to Sunday prime time, although the assumption is his running ability is an asset, and while that was certainly true as a collegian at Oregon against Cal-Poly San Luis Abysmal, the number of pages in the Bruce Arians playbook devoted to the quarterback running on purpose remain at or near zero.

"You try to embrace any opportunity," Dixon said. "It'll be a hostile environment, a big game, a playoff atmosphere. I'm confident. If someone needs me to take that test, then I'm going to have to answer the questions."

OK here's question No. 1: Where's Jeff Garcia?

Gene Collier can be reached at
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First published on November 26, 2009 at 12:23 am