Steelers adapting to QB Dixon's mobility, offensive gifts

PITTSBURGH -- Hines Ward believes Dennis Dixon must run. Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians warns he'd better not run too much.

Coach Mike Tomlin wants Dixon to take advantage of his ability to move the ball by himself, but to do so smartly.

Dixon's running skills add a different dimension to the Steelers' offense -- one that even the suspended Ben Roethlisberger can't match at quarterback.

Still, the Steelers themselves can't seem to agree on how much running for a quarterback is too much.

"Let Dennis be Dennis, that's all we ask for," said Ward, the Steelers' career receptions leader. "If the protection breaks down and he's unsure about the coverage, take off, run. I like the ball in Dennis' hands when he's running. Good things happen."

Before he knew Dixon would be the starter in the Steelers' Sunday season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, Arians decided against drawing up an expansive set of such plays because he said no NFL quarterback could stand up long to the punishment.

"If he's your starter, you're not going to expose him to running the football because they're going to break him up," Arians said during training camp. "That Wildcat stuff, you can forget about that if he's the starter. He wouldn't last two ballgames."

Arians's reluctance to expose a quarterback to such pounding is one reason why the Steelers didn't feature Dixon last season in a Wildcat-type formation, one that resembles the old-style, single-wing offense because the ball is snapped to a back who can either run or pass. Pittsburgh did have a package of plays designed for Dixon if the now-injured Byron Leftwich had started this season, but not all were running plays.

Ward remembers the indecision that Dixon's running skills caused the Baltimore Ravens' defense last season during the quarterback's one and only NFL start to date. Ward believes Dixon won't be reluctant to abandon the pocket if a play breaks down Sunday.

"One thing he adds that you can't coach is athleticism, speed," Ward said. "A lot of defensive coordinators, when a quarterback utilizes his legs the way Dennis does, it changes your whole game plan. Some teams might blitz him, and some might sit back to see if he can read coverages. You really don't know how to play us."

Early in the preseason, Arians believed Dixon was too eager to take off running because he was ignoring open receivers downfield. Likewise, the Steelers don't want to take away the one skill that separates Dixon from most NFL quarterbacks.

"We just want him to do what comes natural," Tomlin said. "I think if you give him too much instruction, then it's not going to be natural. It's not going to be fluid. It's not going to be comfortable. And those are the things I want his performance to be."

No doubt the Steelers are hoping the Falcons focus too much attention on Dixon's scrambling ability and ignore his throwing skills. The former Oregon quarterback completed 71.9 percent of his preseason attempts (23 of 32, 327 yards) and threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes during that 20-17 overtime loss at Baltimore last season. Dixon started that game because Roethlisberger had a concussion.

Ward said the Steelers substantially cut down their playbook for the Ravens game and called one passing play multiple times because Dixon was comfortable with it.

"I can never remember us calling the same play six or seven times," Ward said.

Such hand-holding isn't needed now, according to Dixon.

"The playbook is totally wide open," he said. "It all depends on what B.A. (Arians) is trying to attack at any given moment. Regardless if it's a run or a pass, I can be a threat on both of them. When he calls it, I have to execute it."

Dixon also believes Arians will call running plays for him.

"I have to manage the game, regardless of if it's a run or a pass," he said. "I want to be able to be effective. I don't have to take control of the whole game. I have a lot of playmakers out there."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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