PITTSBURGH – In some ways, it's really hard to quarterback the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Time and again, you are asked to do almost nothing. Thread the needle on a 12-yard hook? Nah, throw the dump pass to the running back.
Throw the seam route just over the linebacker and in front of the safety? Nah, throw the dump pass.
Forget about all those fun patterns in high-tech offenses that give other quarterbacks all those chances for glory. Steelers signal callers must wait and wait. Maybe somewhere along the line they'll get a chance to throw it deep.
The latest example came Thursday night as the defending champion Steelers opened the season with a 28-17 win over the Miami Dolphins. It was a formulaic Pittsburgh victory even though the Steelers had to start Charlie Batch over Ben Roethlisberger, who was in sweats four days after his appendectomy.
In this case, Batch was the hero in a game where most people were expecting Miami's Daunte Culpepper to put on a show. Batch completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns, the biggest an 87-yard throw to tight end Heath Miller in the fourth quarter that gave the Steelers the lead for good and ultimately put Culpepper in a bind.
But more on Culpepper later.
Batch controlled the game Thursday because he did the thing that great Pittsburgh quarterbacks do best.
He extinguished his ego.
"Yeah, sometimes it's really hard to be a quarterback in this offense," Batch said. "You want to throw some of those hard patterns and zip it in, but that's not what we do. It's what coach [Bill] Cowher keeps telling us, 'Be patient, be patient.'"
This has always been the Pittsburgh way during the good times. It just hasn't always been easy to do. In the 1970s, the Steelers won four titles with quarterback Terry Bradshaw, one of the great deep throwers of all time.
It was a struggle at times for Bradshaw to accept his role. Coach Chuck Noll had to bench him at times and Bradshaw finished his career feeling bitter toward Noll. Bradshaw, stung by people who labeled him as stupid, wanted to call his own plays. He felt he deserved the right to throw the ball more.
Noll always had a droll response to that notion.
"People have to understand how they fit into the team," Noll said.
The same is true today. That's why Roethlisberger is a perfect fit for the Steelers. He doesn't have an ego that demands more throws. He seems to understand that his greatest weakness is the intermediate passes.
Moreover, he has a unique ability to keep his focus downfield when most quarterbacks would start to feel nervous about holding the ball too long.
On Thursday, Batch borrowed a page from that book. He kept looking downfield. Most of the time, the play wasn't there, so he threw the easier route to Hines Ward (five catches, 53 yards) or running back Willie Parker (three for 13). He also let the running game take hold. The Steelers ran 38 times for 143 yards.
"That's what you have to do with our offense, wait, wait, wait," running back Duce Staley said. "The time is going to come when the defense makes a mistake. You keep waiting and eventually that dam is going to burst and all that water is going to flow."
In this case, the Miller play was that moment. With 6:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were down 17-14 at their own 13-yard line. Everything about the moment said either run or throw a safe pass. The Steelers ran a play-action fake and Batch looked at Ward on a crossing pattern.
"I saw what was happening and I started pointing for Charlie to throw it to Heath," Ward said in all seriousness. "For real, I was pointing 'cause I knew he was open."
Miller was wide open over the top of the defense.
After that, Culpepper was the one who regressed. With the Dolphins running game going nowhere, Culpepper was called upon to do more than Miami really wanted. Down four points, Culpepper needed to drive the Dolphins for a score.
Instead, he threw the first of back-to-back interceptions. Culpepper, who has never been known to read zone coverages particularly well, lobbed one to the sideline that safety Troy Polamalu snagged.
The Dolphins got the ball back with 3:09 remaining, but the Steelers again dropped seven defenders looking for a Culpepper throw. Culpepper tried to zip a pass to slot receiver Wes Welker – the very type of pass that the Steelers hate to throw. As the results showed, there's a good reason for that disdain.
Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter snagged the ball and returned it 42 yards for the clinching touchdown.
Proving that most of the time, it's also really hard to be the quarterback going against the Steelers.
- Terry Bradshaw