Rashard Mendenhall ran 50 yards for a touchdown 2:35 into overtime and the Steelers overcame a shaky start by replacement quarterback Dennis Dixon and a missed field goal attempt late in regulation to beat the Atlanta Falcons 15-9 on Sunday.
"We've got to prepare for those type of games [without Roethlisberger]," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We'll take a win any way we can get it, anyhow we can get it."
Mendenhall carried 22 times for 120 yards. A Steelers defense that was the NFL's best two seasons ago before slipping a year ago held Atlanta (0-1) to 58 yards rushing -- former All-Pro Michael Turner gained 42 yards -- and three Matt Bryant field goals.
"In the run game, you've got to be patient," said Mendenhall, who cut to his right, found the open field and took it in despite stumbling near the 10 on his game-winner. "You wait all day for something like that to open up. The run game, you've got to stick with it and stick with it."
Pittsburgh (1-0) appeared ready to win it with 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter, but Jeff Reed, who has nine career game-winning kicks, was wide right on a 40-yard attempt. Reed had hit earlier from 52, 36 and 34 yards.
Reed's 34-yarder in the fourth made it 9-6, following catches of 25 and 24 yards on successive pass plays by Hines Ward. Ward had 108 yards in his club record 26th career 100-yard game and went over 11,000 yards receiving in his career.
Atlanta tied it with 3:24 remaining on Bryant's third field goal, a 23-yarder, after deciding against going for it on fourth and a long 1 at the Pittsburgh 5.
"I felt we needed to tie the game," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "It was relatively simple when you consider the percentages."
Turner, despite averaging barely 2 yards per carry, felt they needed to run it.
"When coach called it, I was getting ready, getting myself pumped up," Turner said. "If we would have got that I think we would have probably finished the game off. But coach changed his mind. We have to trust his decision."
It was the third overtime game in as many Falcons-Steelers meetings. They played a 34-all tie in 2002 at Heinz Field, and Atlanta won 41-38 at home in 2006.
Predictably, the Steelers came out with a conservative game plan with Dixon making his second career start and Roethlisberger serving the first game of his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
What was surprising was the Falcons played similarly. Matt Ryan was 27 of 44 for an ineffectual 252 yards and was intercepted by Troy Polamalu with 1:45 remaining, giving Reed his failed opportunity to win it.
Roddy White made 13 catches for 111 yards, but the Falcons were within touchdown range only once while being outgained 354-295. Atlanta didn't score until the final play of the first half, when Bryant made a 49-yarder to tie it at 3 after Reed missed from 55.
"I think it's inexcusable, but they're a good defense," tight end Tony Gonzalez said.
Polamalu, injured most of last season, made a perceptible difference in a Steelers defense that gave up leads in the fourth quarter five times last season as Pittsburgh went 9-7.
"I think for the most part we shut them down," Keisel said of a defense that has only three starters younger than 30. "Teams are going to test us. We're old and washed up and teams are going to see if we can still play."
And if Polamalu's hair is valued at $1 million -- his shampoo sponsor recently insured it -- how much are his hands worth?
"I don't know what the quarterback was thinking, but when you see No. 43 [Polamalu], don't throw it his way," linebacker James Farrior said. "He's the best player I've ever played with."
Dixon finished 18 of 26 for 236 yards with an interception and had several other potential interceptions dropped. He wasn't good enough to win most games but, with the Steelers' defense back to its dominating ways, wasn't bad enough to lose this one.
"Overall, I got overexcited," Dixon said. "I'm just happy to have someone like Hines Ward and the savvy vets to calm me down."
Dixon's one long completion, a 52-yarder to second-year receiver Mike Wallace, led to Reed's 36-yard field goal and a 6-all tie. Wallace is starting in place of former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, who was dealt to the Jets.
Coach Mike Tomlin wouldn't commit to starting Dixon at Tennessee on Sunday, but it is highly unlikely he would make a change following a win.
The Falcons, 2-12-1 against the Steelers, took a 6-3 lead early in the third on Bryant's 39-yarder, which was set up by Gonzalez's 20-yard reception -- the 1,000th of his career. He is the first NFL tight end to reach that mark and the seventh receiver overall.
The Steelers won their eighth consecutive opener, the NFL's longest streak. They had won only two of their previous nine in OT. ... Ward is the first Steelers player with at least 11,000 yards receiving. ... Pittsburgh has won 21 of its past 25 against the NFC. ... Tomlin is 4-0 in openers, Smith is 2-1. ... The Steelers are 6-0-1 against Atlanta in Pittsburgh.
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