8:30 PM ET, September 7, 2006
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Miami (9-7) at Pittsburgh (11-5) Thursday 8:30 pm EDT
PITTSBURGH (Ticker) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers successfully defended a Super Bowl twice in the 1970s under Chuck Noll. But doing that again under Bill Cowher will be quite difficult.
For the third consecutive year, the NFL will salute the defending Super Bowl champions with the season opener on a Thursday night when the Steelers host the Miami Dolphins. The last two years the New England Patriots got the honor of hosting the opener and won each time.
Now it's the Steelers' turn to bask in the glory of a championship, but they may be in no mood to celebrate.
Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl last February, nearly died in a June 12 motorcycle accident. After undergoing surgery for multiple facial fractures, Roethlisberger missed no practice time during the preseason.
But Roethlisberger became ill during practice on Sunday and needed to have an emergency appendectomy, sidelining him for at least Thursday's opener.
Cowher will now turn to veteran Charlie Batch, who went 2-0 last season when Roethlisberger was out with a knee injury.
"We have confidence in Charlie," Cowher said. "He's started in this league and played his share of pressure games."
The 31-year-old Batch was a starter with the Detroit Lions from 1998-2001, compiling a 19-27 record. In his last year with Detroit, Batch completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,392 yards and 12 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.
Last season with the Steelers, Batch was 23-of-36 for 246 yards and one touchdown with one interception. He proved to be better than Tommy Maddox, who was released in the offseason.
Over the last two seasons, the Steelers are 27-4 with Roethlisberger as the starter and 4-3 without him.
On top of that, Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward did not play in any of the team's preseason games due to a sore right hamstring. But the Steelers' all-time leading receiver (574 catches) has practiced this week.
"You know I'm not missing this game," Ward said. "Yes I will play on Thursday."
Batch will need him to run his precise routes against a Miami secondary that underwent offseason changes. Former Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Madison was released and replaced by Will Allen and safety Jason Allen was selected in the first round of the 2006 draft.
But the Dolphins are more worried about Pittsburgh's running attack. Willie Parker rushed for 1,202 yards last season and set a Super Bowl record with a 75-yard touchdown run in the 21-10 win over Seattle.
"The Steelers always have a strong offensive line and good backs," Dolphins Pro Bowl middle linebacker Zach Thomas said. "The run-blockers on that line make it go."
The Dolphins ranked 17th against the run last year as Thomas again led the team with 162 tackles.
Miami's other star on defense is end Jason Taylor, who has 92 1/2 career sacks. His total of 76 are the most in the NFL since 2000.
Pittsburgh's defense returns all but two starters and is anchored by nose tackle Casey Hampton, safety Troy Polamalu and linebackers Joey Porter and James Farrior. Brett Keisel replaces Kimo von Oelhoffen at right end and Ryan Clark succeeds Chris Hope at free safety. Von Oelhoffen signed with the New York Jets and Hope signed with Tennessee.
Facing Pittsburgh's defense is a tough first act for Daunte Culpepper, who was acquired by Miami from the Minnesota Vikings for a second round pick,
Culpepper tore three right knee ligaments in an October 30 game against Carolina. He made a miraculous recovery from that injury and played in all of Miami's preseason games.
The Dolphins have not had a Pro Bowl quarterback since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. Since his retirement, the list of quarterbacks has included the likes of Jay Fiedler, A.J. Feeley and Brian Griese.
The Dolphins closed coach Nick Saban's first season with a six-game winning streak and finished 9-7.
But that doesn't quite compare to Pittsburgh's eight-game winning streak, including four postseason wins and the 21-10 triumph over Seattle in Super Bowl XL.
More from ESPN.com
Big Ben: Wouldn't trade SB rings for MVP
As far as Ben Roethlisberger is concerned, winning an MVP would be an "awesome individual honor," but he wouldn't trade it for either of his two Super Bowls -- or three, if he has his way.
Polamalu, Taylor likely to play against Saints
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are expected to play Sunday against the Saints.
Week 13 ESPN NFL Power Rankings: Packers at No. 2; Seahawks jump to No. 7
The Packers have supplanted the Cardinals at No. 2; Chiefs drop nine spots.
Steelers' Taylor (forearm) may play Sunday
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor received medical clearance to return from a broken forearm and might play Sunday against the Saints.
Steelers' QB Batch gets call in opener
Although they did not qualify for the playoffs, the Dolphins won their last six games last season. The only team to finish 2005 hotter than Miami was Pittsburgh, which won its last eight in a row, including three road playoff games and the Super Bowl. Now the Super Bowl champs open against an up-and-coming Dolphins team that hopes to be where the Steelers are.
Beyond the status of each team is the drama surrounding each team's starting quarterback. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger had the motorcycle accident and now the emergency appendectomy, forcing the Steelers to go with backup Charlie Batch on short notice. Miami's Daunte Culpepper has impressed everyone with his preseason performance after undergoing major knee surgery, but now he has to do it in the regular season against a very good defense.
This is going to be a very physical, well-coached game. Running room will be very difficult to come by, and the team with the better quarterback play probably will end up with the victory. Expect a tight battle where special teams and field position are paramount.
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|Avg Points Allowed||28.0||17.0|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||MIA|
|Rush Yds Allowed||MIA|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Pittsburgh leads 2-0|
|Sep 26, 2004||MIA 3, PIT 13|