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Falcons-Steelers PreviewBy BRETT HUSTON
STATS Senior Writer
2010-09-11 02:36:18 -
Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Atlanta Falcons closed 2009 with three straight wins, providing heightened expectations heading into the offseason despite the disappointment of failing to make the playoffs.
It didn't take long for the Steelers' momentum to disappear.
Off-field indiscretions led to the trade of a Super Bowl MVP wideout and Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension, leaving Pittsburgh to hand the offensive reins to Dennis Dixon for Sunday's season opener against the visiting Falcons.
The Steelers blew any chance to defend their Super Bowl XLIII title with a midseason five-game losing streak, which proved too much to overcome despite a late surge to finish 9-7.
Shortly after the NFL season ended, the two stars that combined for the winning touchdown in Pittsburgh's sixth championship were back in the news. Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a Milledgeville, Ga., bar on March 5, the second such allegation brought against him in eight months.
Charges were never filed, but commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Roethlisberger - who threw for a career-high 4,238 yards in 2009 - six games for violating the league's personal conduct policy. It was reduced to four at the conclusion of the preseason.
On March 24, a lawsuit was filed against receiver Santonio Holmes alleging he threw a glass at a woman in a nightclub. Less than three weeks later, Holmes was shipped to the New York Jets for a fifth-round draft pick.
Without their signal caller for a quarter of the season and Holmes now gone for good, the Steelers face a long road in an attempt to avoid their first consecutive non-playoff seasons since 1998-2000.
"It motivates each player in this room when they tell you what you can't do," receiver Hines Ward said. "We are going to be underdogs all year, especially the first four games with the uncertainly at quarterback and youth on our team. We play better as underdogs."
Speedy second-year receiver Mike Wallace replaces Holmes across from Ward, and those two will be counted on to make Dixon's job easier. The mobile third-year quarterback battled veterans Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch for the job in training camp, but coach Mike Tomlin's decision was made less complicated when Leftwich sprained his MCL in the preseason finale.
"Dennis has had a very productive preseason and training camp," Tomlin said. "... He waged a battle and got some first-team reps in some preseason games. Largely, we've been very impressed with how he's handled himself in game situations.''
Dixon's lone NFL start came Nov. 29 at Baltimore, when he went 12 for 26 for 145 yards with a TD and an interception while Roethlisberger recovered from a concussion.
The Falcons, meanwhile, have a third-year starter with considerably more experience. Yet after completing 61.1 percent of his passes and being named the Offensive Rookie of the Year while leading the Falcons to the playoffs in 2008, Matt Ryan was less accurate (58.3) and took a small step backward in Atlanta's 9-7 season.
After missing two games with a toe injury, though, Ryan came back to throw six touchdowns in leading the Falcons to their final three victories.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez feels Ryan hasn't missed a beat ever since.
"He is looking great,'' Gonzalez said. "He has really improved and I am happy with the way he is going. Just got to keep him healthy and the sky is the limit with him. It is just a matter of when and not if. He will be one of the best. It is just about getting that experience.''
Gonzalez and Roddy White give Ryan two outstanding targets, but Atlanta will be without receiver Michael Jenkins for the opener after he suffered a shoulder injury early in training camp and missed all four preseason games.
Jenkins was Atlanta's third-leading receiver in 2009 with 50 catches for 635 yards and one touchdown.
The Falcons almost certainly need Michael Turner to stay healthy to return to the playoffs. The NFL's second-leading rusher in 2008 (1,699) had that total nearly cut in half last season, when he missed five games with an ankle injury.
Plenty of opponents found facing the Steelers' injury-plagued defense to be less than intimidating down the stretch, when they surrendered averages of 23.3 points and 351.0 yards in their final six contests without safety Troy Polamalu and end Aaron Smith.
Both are ready to go in Sunday's opener, when Pittsburgh tries to win its eighth consecutive season opener.
"Troy's the best at what he does,'' Smith said. "He's just a playmaker. It will be nice to have him out there, running around and doing crazy stuff.''
Atlanta will be hoping to improve on a defense that has finished 20th or worse for five consecutive seasons, and adding free agent cornerback Dunta Robinson should be a good start.
The return of defensive tackle Peria Jerry should help as well. The 2009 first-rounder missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury, but should be a solid run stuffer - particularly against a Steelers team that may ride Rashard Mendenhall with Roethlisberger out.
Atlanta was 1-11 all-time against Pittsburgh before a 34-34 tie at Heinz Field in 2002 and a 41-38 home win in 2006.
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