Steelers prevail for a city in mourning
On a day when this city experienced the confluence of grieving and glory, burying a popular mayor in the morning and then having to turn out to support its beloved Super Bowl champions just a few hours later, it was left to a Pittsburgh Guy to turn tears into cheers.
PITTSBURGH -- On a day when this city experienced the confluence of grieving and glory, burying a popular mayor in the morning and then having to turn out to support its beloved Super Bowl champions just a few hours later, it was left to a Pittsburgh Guy to turn tears into cheers.
OK, so Steelers backup Charlie Batch isn't really from Pittsburgh. But Homestead, Pa., just a short drive across his city's locally well-known High Level Bridge, a span that once carried thousands of steel workers to their sooty jobs in the blast furnaces and to a livelihood in a diminished industry from which the Steelers derived their name, is plenty close enough for Batch to know the history of the franchise.
And to understand that, in tough times like the ones that confronted 'Burghers this week, hearty Steelers fans count on the home team to deliver them from some real-life downers.
Which is precisely what Batch, substituting for injured starter Ben Roethlisberger, did here Thursday night.
"To give the city some relief from the mourning and the grieving, and to be able to provide an escape from the things that have happened, yeah, it definitely meant a lot," said Batch, whose three touchdown passes lifted the Steelers to a 28-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins in the NFL regular-season opener, and lifted the city, perhaps out of the doldrums. "And to be from around here, and know what the people were going through all week, with the mayor dying and then [Roethlisberger] having the appendectomy ... sure, it was huge for me personally to help win this game."
Certainly, it was a game that tested the Steelers and one in which Pittsburgh again demonstrated the kind of resilience that marked the team's extraordinary run to the Super Bowl XL title.
In the aftermath of the victory, winning a game without its starting quarterback and on a night when his club was not at its best and authored some uncharacteristic pratfalls, Steelers coach Bill Cowher lauded the club's mental toughness and uncanny ability to deal with adversity. Those qualities have become hallmarks of Cowher-coached teams.
"We overcame a lot, and that's the thing I'm most proud of with this team," Cowher said.
That was a sentiment echoed in virtually every corner of the happy but still somewhat subdued Steelers locker room. The other most notable emotion was relief, at having gotten off to a winning start against an opponent many feel will challenge for the AFC berth in Super Bowl XLI, and at having moved the city beyond one of its most gut-wrenching weeks in recent memory.
The late Mayor Bob O'Connor, who for 12 years pursued his lifelong dream to lead this city, finally won election, then died last Friday after a two-month battle against brain cancer and only 241 days in office, was a Pittsburgh Guy who loved the Steelers. At his funeral service Thursday morning, O'Connor's oldest son, a priest, delivered a touching eulogy. His youngest son led the congregation through the first chords of "The Steeler Polka" and then attended the game to lead the crowd in waving The Terrible Towel.
After the three touchdown passes by Batch and a brilliant performance by weakside linebacker Joey Porter turned a taut game into the equivalent of an rollicking Irish Wake in the fading minutes -- what else would you expect in memory of a mayor named O'Connor and franchise owned by the sainted Rooney family -- it's a good bet Steelers fans were hoisting an Iron City beer or two and screaming "The Steeler Polka" well into Friday morning.
The city needed such an excuse to exhale. And the Steelers, who aren't given much chance to repeat their Super Bowl victory by most pundits, needed it, too.
"This was a big game for us," said owner Dan Rooney, who attended O'Connor's funeral before turning his attention to football in the evening. "And it was a big win for the city. This city kind of relies on this team to pull it through. The people here, they lean on us in hard times. And that's all right. I guess we don't mind being leaned on."
An eight-year veteran starting just his third regular-season game since 2001, Batch apparently doesn't mind being leaned on a little, either.
Despite uneven moments, especially an early fourth-quarter fumble at the Miami 1-yard line that squelched a scoring opportunity when the Steelers trailed 17-14, Batch performed admirably. He didn't look nearly as rattled as his counterpart, Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper, did at times. And he finished with 15 completions in 25 attempts for 209 yards, and touchdown hookups with wide receivers Nate Washington (27 yards) and Hines Ward (seven yards) and tight end Heath Miller (87 yards).
It marked Batch's first 200-yard performance since the 2001 season opener, when he was the starter in Detroit, and his first multiple touchdown pass outing since Oct. 14 of that year.
The 87-yarder to Miller, the longest pass play in Heinz Field history, was certainly the signature play of the game. It came on Pittsburgh's first play after the fumbled snap, following a Miami punt to the Steelers' 13-yard line and, as usual, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, soon to be a head coach at the NFL level, dialed up a superb play-call.
Whisenhunt and Batch noticed that the Dolphins had been double- and triple-teaming Ward for much of the game. And so, with Ward aligned as the "Z" receiver and Miller as the "Y," both to the right side of the formation, Batch made a subtle play-fake to tailback Willie Parker (29 carries for 115 yards), simulating a strong-side run the Steelers had used earlier. The fake drew middle linebacker Zach Thomas toward the line of scrimmage and a cornerback and safety both converged on Ward, leaving Miller running free behind the secondary. The second-year tight end gathered in Batch's pass at about the 30-yard line and then chugged the rest of the way for the score.
"A great call and great recognition by [Batch] on the play," Ward said. "I mean, here I was, a guy who didn't even practice in camp or play in the preseason and I'm thinking all night, 'Man, why are you guys doubling me? I haven't even done anything yet.' But I'm glad they did. And I'm glad that Heath made it all the way ... because, let's be honest, there was some doubt."
Indeed, it appeared several times during Miller's long, rambling run that he might be hauled down from behind by cornerback Will Allen, who had cheated up on Ward on the play. Miller had just enough left to get to the corner of the end zone and, in truth, replays showed he might have been knock out of bounds before breaking the plane of the goal line. Dolphins coach Nick Saban waited too long, however, to challenge the play and officials never saw him throw the red replay flag onto the field.
Said Cowher: "Whatever the replays showed, well, it doesn't matter. It is what it is."
Three minutes after Miller's score, Porter sealed the victory and put an exclamation point on a huge night by stepping in front of Dolphins' wide receiver Wes Welker, who had a big game of his own, with 220 all-purpose yards, intercepting Culpepper, and returning the theft 42 yards for a touchdown.
Culpepper completed 18 of 37 passes for 262 yards, was sacked three times and had two interceptions. There were occasions on which he bought time with his feet and kept plays alive, like on a 52-yard pass to wide receiver Marty Booker, but there were times he also looked skittish. And Porter made him pay.
"Hey, great players make great plays at great moments," Porter said. "You figure out how that all adds up for me, OK?"
For the game, the ever-loquacious Porter had three tackles, two sacks, two pressures, the interception and a pass defensed. And he had considerable help from a Steelers defense that limited Miami tailback Ronnie Brown to a paltry 30 yards on 15 rushes. Strong safety Troy Polamalu registered a team-high 10 tackles, had an interception and a pass deflection and forced a fumble. Inside linebacker James Farrior finished with seven tackles, a sack and two hurries. And, as usual, the Pittsburgh secondary, despite surrendering some big plays, was a unit filled with human wrecking balls.
"It's what we do," Polamalu said. "This is the way we play and it's why the people here love us so much. Football just means so much to the people here. It's a tough city that went through a tough time this week. A lot of us who sat around today watching the mayor's funeral, with all day to think about it, knew just what this game meant to the city. By 6 o'clock or so, we were all about football, but it would be naïve to think some of the other stuff wasn't in the back of our minds.
"But we came through because we're a team that rises [to the occasion] when people count on us and when we count on each other. And, once again, you saw the results of our resiliency."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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