This was not a dominating win and it certainly wasn't pretty. But Pittsburgh extended its winning streak in season openers to an NFL-best eight consecutive games.
Although questions remain about Pittsburgh's quarterback situation -- I'll get to that in a bit -- no one can question the Steelers' toughness and character. Not many teams can win without their $100 million quarterback -- especially against an Atlanta team many think is playoff-caliber.
"We stayed together and played team football, and did it to the very end," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We got some things to work on, absolutely, like all 31 other teams do. But we get to do it while we’re 1-0."
In what should be a blueprint for the next three games without Roethlisberger, who is suspended for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, Pittsburgh won by making Atlanta play its tempo. The Falcons had the more explosive offense and the better quarterback in Matt Ryan. But the Steelers' defense, running game and special teams helped turn this game into an ugly battle for field position.
Virtually every player who needed to step up for Pittsburgh in Roethlisberger's absence did.
Troy Polamalu recorded five tackles and had a critical fourth-quarter interception.
In addition to Mendenhall's 120 yards rushing, Hines Ward (six catches, 108 yards) had his franchise-best 26th game with more than 100 yards receiving. Linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley each recorded a sack, and safety Troy Polamalu recorded five tackles and an interception in the fourth quarter.
Atlanta tried beating Pittsburgh at its own game but couldn't. With the score tied 9-9 late in the fourth quarter, things began to unravel for the Falcons when Ryan threw an interception to Polamalu to set up a potential winning field goal. Jeff Reed missed the kick, but Pittsburgh's defense held again in overtime to set up Mendenhall's sprint to victory.
"All day on the run, we were creating seams," Mendenhall said. "In the run game, you just have to be patient. We knew that something was going to open up, and it did in overtime."
The game marked quarterback Dennis Dixon's first career victory in two starts. He was up and down, completing 18 of 26 passes for 236 yards and an interception. Tomlin described Dixon's game as "a winning effort," but there were plenty of instances where Dixon could have lost the game.
Pittsburgh, for the most part, played very conservatively on offense. But when Atlanta brought more defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, the Steelers were forced to open things up a bit. Despite several nice throws by Dixon, there were some head-scratching ones too, typical for an inexperienced quarterback.
Dixon's interception to Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson in the first quarter was a pass terribly underthrown to tight end Heath Miller. Atlanta, by my count, also dropped three more interception opportunities that could have changed the outcome. Most of Dixon's poor throws came when Atlanta fooled him with the coverage and Dixon tried to force the play.
"I would love to get a couple balls back, of course," Dixon said. "But that's why you play football, and that's why it's a total team game."
The Falcons also did a nice job keeping Dixon in pocket. The third-year quarterback only gained four yards on two attempts. Count on the Steelers' next three opponents using Sunday’s game tape to mirror the strategy Atlanta used to keep Dixon bottled up behind the line of scrimmage. Dixon's best throws were a beautiful deep pass to receiver Mike Wallace for 52 yards and a 25-yard strike to Ward.