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Harris: Dixon denied fair shot

Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010

Dennis Dixon doesn't stand a chance. There's no way he can prove he deserves to start at quarterback if he doesn't practice and play with the starters.

Apparently, the Steelers don't want a fair fight at the most visible position on the team.

Byron Leftwich played with the starters for most of the first half of Saturday night's preseason opener against the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field.

With Ben Roethlisberger sidelined for at least the first four games of the regular season, the Steelers' actions have made it clear that Leftwich will be his replacement.

There has been no real competition between Leftwich and Dixon, because Dixon hasn't practiced with the starters.

Dixon has received plenty of reps in practice. Dixon leads all quarterbacks with 213 total snaps in 11 on 11 team drills. Leftwich is second with 199 snaps. Roethlisberger is third with 189 snaps, followed by Charlie Batch with 59 snaps.

Dixon, however, doesn't practice with the first team. Last night, he didn't play with the first team, either, completing 6 of 7 passes for 128 yards and 1 touchdown.

Dixon hasn't received the same opportunity that Leftwich has had passing to Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Heath Miller. He doesn't get to play in the same backfield with running back Rashard Mendenhall.

I asked Dixon the other day if he expected the same results playing with backups that he would with the starters.

"I wouldn't say that," he said. "But that's not my decision. All I can control is the reps I get. Whoever I'm with, I want to be able to score."

Dixon entered last night's game at the 4:45 mark of the second quarter. Playing with running back Isaac Redman and wide receivers Arnaz Battle and Emmanuel Sanders, Dixon guided the Steelers to their best drive of the first half and did what Leftwich was unable to do — lead the offense to a touchdown.

The key play was a 51-yard pass to Battle. Rolling left, Dixon found Battle, who slipped a tackle and sped down the sideline.

On first and goal from the 5, Dixon nearly scored on a running play to his right. The ball crossed the goal line, but his knee touched down first. One play later, Redman scored, and the Steelers grabbed a 13-7 lead before play was halted late in the half because of lightning.

Dixon's ability to move the offense in the rain as soon as he stepped on the field bodes well for his future. If not with the Steelers, then possibly with another team.

Dixon adds another element that Leftwich can't offer. He can run as well as pass. Considering how easily the offensive line was shoved around in the first half, Dixon's mobility may come in handy.

Nevertheless, the Steelers feel more comfortable with Leftwich, the veteran, than they do with Dixon, the kid.

The Steelers know what they're getting with Leftwich. He's a former first-round pick who filled in for Roethlisberger two years ago and led the Steelers to a win at Washington.

If Leftwich opens the season 4-0 as the starter, he will have performed better than anticipated. However, there would be no debate about a quarterback controversy when Roethlisberger is eligible to return. That's because Leftwich was acquired to be Roethlisberger's backup.

The Steelers don't know what they have in Dixon, who performed well in his only NFL start at Baltimore last season but lost 20-17 in overtime. At this rate, they might never find out. However, if Dixon opened the season 4-0, his potential as a young quarterback could spark some debate about the Steelers allowing the kid to continue playing.

The Steelers' strategy to limit Dixon's reps with the first team is a safe move, but that doesn't mean it's the right one.




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