Dixon, Batch battling for final Steelers QB spot
LATROBE, Pa. -- Dennis Dixon didn't anticipate spending his summer at Saint Vincent College.
Don't get the quarterback wrong. He's happy to be back in training camp with the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
At least, as happy as he can be. The truth is, Dixon explored his options. He spent the first week after the NFL lockout ended hoping another team would tender the restricted free agent an offer. One never materialized, however, and the fourth-year player ended up signing a one-year deal to return to Pittsburgh.
"Obviously if choices were to come my way, it would have been presented to me," Dixon said. "But (the shortened free agency period) was too fast, too quick and the lockout pretty much forced everybody's hand as to what they want to do."
Leaving Dixon with little choice on what he has to do over the next four weeks if he wants to stay in the NFL.
The former Oregon star and veteran backup Charlie Batch are fighting to be the team's No. 3 quarterback behind Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, and both reserves expect to get plenty of reps Friday when the Steelers open the preseason at Washington.
Batch's job will be helping the young players who will be on the field with him get comfortable playing at the NFL level. Dixon's job? Proving to the Steelers -- or perhaps a team with some instability at the top of the depth chart -- that he's ready to run the show.
"He feels like he's ready to be a starter," Batch said. "He wants to compete and unfortunately it's not going to happen here and everybody knows that. You have Ben here. He's going to be here. He'll probably retire here."
Leaving the 26-year-old Dixon with a choice, try and hang around Pittsburgh working as Plan B or move on. He's not ready to talk about it, but his teammates are well aware this is probably his last season in black-and-gold.
"I think Double D, he can be a great player in this league if someone just picks him up and lets him loose," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "I know he's going to ball in the preseason because he knows what's at stake."
Dixon downplays the importance of the next four weeks, but allows that he's "pretty low on the totem pole."
It's a spot he's grown a little too accustomed to during his three years in the league. He was one of the most electrifying players in the nation during his senior year with the Ducks in 2007 only to have his season end with a torn ACL.
The injury sent him tumbling down draft charts and he wound up going in the fifth round to the Steelers. He spent two years learning the system and working on his passing mechanics when he appeared to have the opening he needed last fall following Roethlisberger's suspension for violating the NFL's player conduct policy.
Dixon's mobility helped him beat out Batch, long entrenched as Roethlisberger's main backup, and Leftwich for the interim starting job. He played efficiently in a 15-9 season-opening win over Atlanta before tearing the meniscus in his left knee against Tennessee a week later.
Surgery followed and the Steelers placed Dixon on injured reserve, ending his season. He watched in street clothes as Pittsburgh soared to the AFC championship and wondered where his career was heading next.
Though Dixon has played the role of good soldier, saying all the right things when asked, Batch knows Dixon has been frustrated by the stop-start nature of his career.
"Maybe if he wasn't hurt, he would have played three years ago," Batch said. "I understand what he's going through. For me, you have to sit back and support the guy because you want to see if he can go out and get his feet wet somewhere."
If Batch can recapture a bit of the magic he showed while filling when Dixon went down, Dixon's freedom may come sooner rather than later.
It could make for an awkward relationship, though Dixon praises Batch for his leadership, something he hopes to emulate.
"Just having those savvy vets like Charlie Batch, Ben and Byron, seeing how they interact with people in and out the huddle," he said. "I'm trying to put that in my repertoire."
Taking control is something that comes naturally to Batch, both on and off the field. He played a vital role during the NFL lockout serving on the NFLPA's executive committee. While he helped get a new deal done, the Steelers were the only team to reject the collective bargaining agreement in large part to Batch and player representative Ryan Clark's reservations about the rushed nature of the agreement.
His point made, Batch was eager to return to the field. He stayed in shape during the lockout by working out in cramped hotel rooms at 6 a.m. before heading to hours of mediation. Inching toward 40, his body doesn't quite bounce back the way it used too.
Still, he's not quite ready to quit.
"I feel like I'm in a position to come out here and put the cleats on and go out and play," he said. "Until that's taken away I really won't consider anything else."
His goal is to make it difficult for the Steelers to cut him and prepare the young players for the rigors of the regular season.
Sanders and fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown credit Batch with helping calm their nerves during exhibition games, tutelage that paid off when things got real in September.
"It's just him just pointing out things, simplifying things that we may not have heard coming out of college," Brown said. "There were defenses that we wouldn't understand and he'd simplify things, making things visual for us."
What does Batch visualize happening when the roster gets cut to 53 next month? He's not sure. Last summer was supposed to be his last go-round, but Roethlisberger's suspension, Leftwich's preseason knee injury and Dixon's injury woes thrust him briefly back into the spotlight.
He can do the math, though, and he knows the team will only carry three quarterbacks into the season opener at Baltimore on Sept. 11. However it plays out, he's convinced the unit will stay together.
"From an organization standpoint they think, well, we have four capable guys that can play," Batch said. "We don't have to make a decision and that won't happen for three more weeks, so stay tuned."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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