Pittsburgh, PA (Sports Network) – Rashard Mendenhall broke off a 50-yard game- winning touchdown run on the Steelers’ first play of overtime as Pittsburgh persevered for a 15-9 win over Atlanta in a defensive battle at Heinz Field.
After the Falcons faltered on the first possession of OT, Michael Koenen’s poor 36-yard punt from the 14-yard-line gave the Steelers prime field position.
Mendenhall wasted little time in making it count, bursting through a hole off right tackle sealed off by a textbook block from tight end David Johnson on his way to the end zone.
Mendenhall ended with 120 yards on 22 carries while Hines Ward came up huge for Dennis Dixon with six catches for 108 yards.
Dixon, making only his second career NFL start, proved an efficient game-manager in the absence of a suspended Ben Roethlisberger. He completed 18-of-26 passes for 236 yards with an interception as Pittsburgh (1-0) extended its streak of wins in opening-season games to a league-best eight.
It was also their eighth consecutive home-opening win, good for third longest in the NFL.
Matt Ryan was 27-of-44 passing for 252 yards with a fourth-quarter interception. Michael Turner was held to 42 yards on 19 touches for Atlanta (0-1), which is coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Roddy White totaled a career-high 13 receptions for 111 yards in the loss, the Falcons’ first on kickoff weekend under third-year head coach Mike Smith.
It was a game of field goals for 60 minutes with Pittsburgh’s Jeff Reed and the Falcons’ Matt Bryant hitting three each in regulation.
Both offenses found a better rhythm in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 6-6.
Pittsburgh embarked on its best drive of the game less than a minute into the period to go in front. Dixon found Ward for big gains of 24 and 25 yards in the middle of the field on back-to-back plays. The possession lost momentum inside the 20, though, and Reed capped the trek with a go-ahead 34-yard field goal.
Atlanta also waited until late to put together its best series, responding with a 13-play, 64-yard drive that ended in a 23-yard Bryant field goal with 3:24 to play.
A pair of sacks on second and third down forced the Steelers to punt it back to the visitors with 1:45 to go but they had the ball back in short order.
On the first play, Ryan floated a ball toward the right sideline for White and Troy Polamalu snuck in for the interception while dragging both feet inbounds.
Pittsburgh took over at the Atlanta 30 but couldn’t do anything with it and Reed set up for a 40-yard field goal with 38 seconds remaining. It sailed wide right and the game went to overtime.
Dixon came out firing on the first drive of the game, completing all four of his passes for 22 yards during an 11-play drive. However, it stalled at the Atlanta 34 and Reed made good on a 52-yard field goal for an early 3-0 edge.
The Steelers’ defense clamped down on the visitors in the first quarter, holding them to a measly 16 yards and two first downs.
Atlanta finally showed an ability to move the ball on its first series of the second quarter but Ryan overthrew a streaking Tony Gonzalez along the right hash marks on 3rd-and-9.
Dixon led the hosts from their own seven and hit Ward for a 21-yard gain across the middle to get inside the Falcon 40. The former Oregon standout made his first big mistake two plays later, though, with veteran linebacker Mike Peterson plucking a pass in the flat intended for Heath Miller.
Atlanta was able to get into field goal range for Bryant with the clock winding under two minutes left, but the 46-yard attempt sailed wide right.
Reed attempted a 55-yard field goal with 22 seconds left and hit the right upright. An aggressive Ryan completed two quick passes netting 24 yards and Bryant was able to connect on a 49-yarder just before halftime to leave it a 3-3 game at intermission.
A 13-play drive by Atlanta opened the second half but again the Steeler defense held and Bryant was forced to kick a 39-yard field goal less than five minutes in.
On the next series, John Abraham’s sack on second down forced 3rd-and-long and the hosts had to settle for Reed’s game-tying 36-yard boot.
Gonzalez hauled in career reception No. 1,000, becoming the first tight end in NFL history to do so. He ended with two catches for 35 yards…Ward hit a pair of milestones, becoming the first Steeler and 24th player in NFL history to surpass 11,000 yards. He also surpassed 900 career receptions, only the 12th player in league annals to reach the mark…The Steelers have amassed an impressive 20-5 record at home during head coach Mike Tomlin’s three seasons at the helm. Pittsburgh has not lost a home opener since a 30-17 setback to Oakland in 2002…Mike Wallace, filling the void left with Santonio Holmes’ departure for the New York Jets, gained 62 yards on two receptions…Both teams struggled on third down, with the Steelers converting only 4-of-14 attempts and Atlanta 6-of-16…Pittsburgh left tackle Max Starks left the game late in the third quarter with an apparent left ankle injury. He had trouble putting weight on the leg and was to have X-rays after the game…Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton also left the game with a hamstring injury in the second quarter. Neither player returned to the game…The Steelers have a decisive 12-2-1 edge in the all-time series…Pittsburgh has allowed only one individual 100-yard rusher over its last 35 regular-season contests…The Falcons were without capable wideout Michael Jenkins because of a right shoulder injury incurred during a scrimmage in August.