Any rational Steelers fan knew that a victory wasn't going to come easy against a talented Falcons team, even at Heinz Field. Had the Falcons been able to jump to an early lead, there's the possibility they could have run away with the game. But the Steelers defense looked as revitalized, consistent for 60+ minutes and as opportunistic as the 2008 version.
Dennis Dixon made the errors that were expected after his disastrous outing against the Broncos with the first-team offense in the preseason. Luckily, he was only made to pay dearly for one of them. Two other passes could or should have been intercepted by the Falcons, but then those kind of bounces happen within any game. Matt Ryan was fortunate not to have another pick that caromed off the stones hands of William Gay in the second half.
It was an all-too familiar scene in the second half: Steelers held a lead in the 4th quarter, but stopped Atlanta short of a go-ahead touchdown. When the Steelers offense couldn't get back the lead, the Falcons took back the ball with about two minutes remaining. Were this 2009, this would be the part when they methodically drove for an excruciating field goal to win. But sorry, Troy's back.
The Steelers didn't come away unscathed on the injury front. Casey Hampton left in the first half with the hamstring injury and didn't return. Max Starks suffered a high ankle sprain late in the second half. Both these injuries are likely to cause both of these players to miss at least a few weeks, which is unfortunate but not cataclysmic. Likely Flozell Adams will be moved back to his natural position of left tackle for Starks' absence, while the defensive front didn't take a huge step back with Hampton out.
Forgetting a couple contributors going down for a few weeks, there's a lot to feel good about with this victory. For starters, it was their most winnable game of the three other than the gimmie against the Buccaneers. This meant it was an essential game to win if the Steelers want to be at least .500 when Ben Roethlisberger returns in Week 6.
The pass protection was very encouraging for the most part. Max Starks was beaten badly on one play by John Abraham. Other than that, Dennis Dixon was usually given more than enough time to throw. If the Steelers can count on much the same once Roethlisberger returns, they'll be in great shape.
An outstanding block made by David Johnson sprang Rashard Mendenhall on his 50-yard game winner. Up to that point, Mendenhall had been having a pretty decent game. Broke off a few eight to 12 yard runs. Granted, the Falcons were expectantly loading the box with big fronts, so it's not like it was going to be easy going for Mendy. No fumbles means good things in these incredibly tight opening weeks with Dixon.
It's been the norm for what seems like three or four years now, but people predicting Hines Ward suffering a huge drop-off just never comes to pass. Maybe it's a desire to prove himself in front of his hometown fans in Georgia, but he always seems to have his biggest game against the Falcons. Remember that in the road loss in 2006, he posted 171 yards receiving and three touchdowns. He might not have been able to get into the endzone on Sunday, but his six catches for 108 yards were central to all the key drives in the second half.
Jeff Reed had a decidedly mixed day, though he showed perhaps more leg strength than he has at any point in his career. I was baffled when the team even bothered to attempt 52- and 55-yard kicks at Heinz Field, but he nailed the first and certainly had the distance for the second before knocking it off the upright. Of course, there's no excusing his missing a potential game-winning 40-yarder. Not really the kind of thing you want to do after pitching a fit about not getting a contract extension before the season starts.
Next week in Tennessee presents an interesting challenge. The Titans looked dominant against what is supposed to be an improved Oakland team. Vince Young looks like what Dennis Dixon might with four years of seasoning. So barring the defense forcing VY into a few critical mistakes, it might be difficult to come away with a win. If any defense is capable of meeting the challenge of Chris Johnson, it's the Steelers. Pittsburgh held Michael Turner to barely over two yards per carry on Sunday. While all it doesn't take much of a mistake to give Cop Speed a breakaway run, remember that the Steelers did an admirable job of bottling him up for 15 carries for 57 yards in the '09 opener.