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New sod creates problems during rain-soaked MNF game

PITTSBURGH -- The Dolphins and
Steelers rolled around in the
muck and mire for more than 59 minutes without scoring, resembling
a bunch of school kids playing a pickup game in a muddy backyard.

Running and passing plays appeared to be going in slow motion.
Punting was difficult, kicking was nearly impossible. Players sunk
ankle deep at times into the swamp-like field, and one punt nearly
disappeared as it struck nose-first into the brand new turf,
burrowing itself like a golf ball.

Welcome to Muddy Night Football.

"It was horrendous," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said.
"No offense. You could have put [Tom] Brady's offense out there
without anyone scoring."

Only this wasn't Lucy pulling the ball away from a slip-sliding
Charlie Brown on Peanuts' imaginary playground, but a for-real NFL
game with the potential to affect playoff races and the winless
Dolphins' place in league history.

For one dreadful night, a perfect storm of weather-related
events conspired to turn the Heinz Field grass into a surface that
resembled a poorly maintained high school field. Neither team
scored until Jeff Reed's 24-yard field goal with 17 seconds
remaining won it for Pittsburgh 3-0.

The sod had been in place less than a day, put down hurriedly
after five high school and college games last weekend chewed up the
old turf. While the grass was new and plush, installing it atop the
old field meant it didn't drain as well.

Add in a drenching rainstorm, the kind seldom seen in Pittsburgh
so close to winter, and lightning, and it made for one of the
weirdest NFL games of recent vintage.

During breaks, grounds crew members gouged the new sod with
pitchforks to accelerate the drainage and emptied bags and bags of
the water-drying substance more commonly seen at Major League
Baseball games.

"On TV, maybe it didn't look so bad," Steelers punter
Dan Sepulveda said. "But when you're out there, it's unbelievable."

No, it looked bad on TV, too.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin often talks about splash plays -- big
plays that make a major difference in a game -- but every play on
this rainy night in Pittsburgh was a splash play.

Perhaps the Steelers should have followed the advice given on
the Web site for the company that provided the new sod: "During
the first three weeks, avoid heavily or concentrated use of your
new yard. This gives the roots an opportunity to firmly knit with
the soil and insures that the turf will remain smooth."

A three-hour pounding by 22 athletes, who weigh an average of
250 pounds or so, likely constitutes heavy usage.

The Steelers have had ongoing turf problems since Heinz Field
opened in 2001, replacing the grass three times during the 2002
season. None of those were quite this bad.

Now, the question is whether this game -- a national
embarrassment to one of the NFL's most successful and well-run
franchises -- will push them to install artificial turf.

"We have to look at those options and we will,"
Tomlin said Tuesday. "I'm not concerned about it right now. The
field we have here is the field we have."

With the Steelers (8-3) staying at home Sunday to play the
Bengals (4-7), an NFL official will remain in Pittsburgh this week
to monitor the field.

On Tuesday afternoon, it was still chewed up, with several long
sideline-to-sideline strips of brown turf caused when rain water
gushed through the seams of the protective tarps laid atop the
field.

However, the Steelers apparently do not plan to replace this sod
with more new sod.

"The field conditions were less than satisfactory for playing
the Monday Night Football game," team president Art Rooney II said
Tuesday in a statement. "We consulted with the NFL prior to laying
down new sod and our grounds crew did the best it could under the
circumstances.

"Unfortunately, we were faced with the worst possible weather
conditions and we acknowledge that it did have an impact on the
playing surface. We will continue to work with the NFL game
operations people this week as our grounds crew works to improve
the conditions of the field in time for Sunday night's game."

Perhaps the surprise is some Steelers players still do not want
artificial turf, even though it would allow more events to be
staged at Heinz Field.

"No, you can't simulate grass," Ward said. "That FieldTurf
[used in the Steelers' indoor practice building] is still turf.
Guys fall on it and it can get hard. You can still get a
concussion. Players around here, if you ask them, even if it was
pretty bad [Monday], we will stick with grass."

Tomlin didn't think the bad field was a big deal, even though
the turf was clearly the culprit in one of the lowest-scoring games
in NFL history. It was the first time since a Lions-Giants
scoreless tie in 1943 that an NFL game went to the final minute
without any scoring.

"It's football, man, it's an outdoor game," Tomlin said. "It
is played as you move into December. Everybody loved to play dirty
football when you were a kid. What else is new? Guys had a great
time, it created some adversity and we overcame it and found a way
to win the game."