Steelers prevail in 'horrendous' conditions
On one of the worst playing surfaces in recent NFL memory, the Steelers made just enough plays to keep the Dolphins winless, writes John Clayton.
PITTSBURGH -- The city that brought you the Terrible Towel now has the Terrible Field.
On what might have been the worst playing surface in recent memory, the Steelers narrowly avoided being involved in the first scoreless NFL game in 64 years on Monday night. Jeff Reed kicked a 24-yard field goal with 17 seconds left to beat the Dolphins, 3-0. The playing surface has been a problem brewing at Heinz Field for years, and it may force the Steelers to go to artificial or field turf in 2008.
On Saturday, the grounds crew rolled out two-and-a-half acres of fresh green sod. Because of two University of Pittsburgh football games and several recent high school games, the old field surface was shot, leaving the Rooney family no alternative. But a full day of rain ruined the sod. Water seeped under the tarps.
The situation was hopeless. Because the sod was positioned over the old field, there was no drainage. Grounds crew members had to resort to using pitch forks to puncture holes in the surface to drain the standing water. On top of that, a flash of lightning sent both teams to the locker rooms, delaying the game for 15 minutes.
"Those conditions we were playing in were horrendous," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "No offense you can put [Tom] Brady's offense out there that was terrible out there. But we stayed the course. We didn't panic. We didn't pressure. We didn't finger point. We found a way to win the game.''
The teams combined for 375 yards of offense and three points. Kickers had no chance. A couple of weeks ago, Browns kicker Phil Dawson complained about Heinz Field, saying it was the worst in football for a kicker. He noted that no visiting kicker had booted a 50-yard field goal in Pittsburgh. On this night, no kicker could kick a 30-yard field goal. Extra points would have been an adventure.
Reed tried one for 44 yards in the third quarter and was woefully short. In the fourth quarter, Dolphins kicker Jay Feely attempted a 38-yarder, but the position of that kick was right in the muck caused by the tarp seams.
Feely's kick barely made it over the heads of the players at the line of scrimmage, but it didn't matter. The Dolphins were flagged for delay of game. Dolphins coach Cam Cameron sent in the punter, but Feely campaigned to try another kick because he actually thought he had good footing. Cameron opted to send in the offense, and rookie quarterback John Beck was sacked for a 5-yard loss on fourth-and-11.
"The Patriots' field was pretty bad a couple of years before they put the new turf in," Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor said. "This one was probably the worst I've seen in this league."
The Steelers started the game-winning drive from the Dolphins' 42 with 4:13 left in the fourth quarter. Ben Roethlisberger mixed short, conservative passes to Ward and Willie Parker running plays to move the ball inside the Dolphins' 10.
Then the field became the Steelers' biggest obstacle. The seam-related wet spots made the area between the 5- and 10-yard lines tough to navigate and a treacherous place for kickers.
On a third-and-5 from the Dolphins' 5, Roethlisberger was sacked at the 6, but it gave Reed the chance to kick from the 14, a reasonably dry area.
Reed made the 24-yard field goal. It marked the 11th consecutive loss in what could be a winless season of bad luck in Miami. The situation for Miami was worse than the weather.
Beck did as well as his limited experience could take him. He completed 14 of 23 passes and committed only one turnover (a fumble). But as the game went on, he kept losing running backs. Jesse Chatman, already playing with a bad ankle, injured his neck in the first half. Ricky Williams, returning to the NFL after drug suspension that cost him 18 months, suffered a possible pectoral injury when Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons stepped on his shoulder. That left the Dolphins with Patrick Cobbs.
All the Steelers needed was one scoring drive to win, but the terrible field forced major changes in their offense. The footing was so bad, no running back was going to dazzle anyone.
"It's like playing a game on a beach," Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter said. "Willie Parker's 4.2 speed went to about 4.8 and we all can run 4.8."
Parker ran for 81 yards on 24 carries, but his longest run was only nine yards.
Roethlisberger worked out of a different version of the no-huddle. Call it the no-puddle. As weird as it was, Roethlisberger completed 18 of 21 passes for 165 yards, but he was sacked five times and threw an interception.
"There were times where we were trying to fix divots at the line of scrimmage," Roethlisberger said. "We're trying to get footing. No fumbled snaps were huge. Only one turnover wasn't bad. It was a bad ball that I didn't get it up high enough. That's a pretty good game."
Said Ward: "Of course, we wanted to put up more than three points, but considering situational football, I think we did a great job today. That's something that Coach [Mike] Tomlin preaches, about situations. That last drive -- converting third down, making some plays and getting down the field -- that's what our offense is supposed to do.''
Ward kept reminding his receivers not to worry about yards after the catch, just worry about the catch. Ward made nine sure-handed receptions for 88 yards, including three catches for 38 yards on the game-winning drive.
During the course of the game, the Steelers committed three key penalties that cost them chances to score. On the final drive, Roethlisberger moved the Steelers inside the Dolphins' 10 and made sure he didn't screw it up.
"Early in the game, you take the chances but late, going into those last two series, I told Bruce [offensive coordinator Bruce Arians] and I told Coach Tomlin to let me throw," he said. "I can win the game. We can get it down the field. I have confidence in my line, my receivers and you see the last drive, we did that. We threw the ball. Hopefully, it just shows all the people who say we have to run the ball to win that we can throw the ball, too.''
Ward said most of Pittsburgh's players don't want the organization to go to artificial turf. The Rooneys want Heinz Field to be natural. On Monday night, it was a natural disaster. Seeing two TV shots of punted balls landing in the mud and sticking there might convince the Rooneys to take the natural feel away from Heinz in 2008.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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