This past weekend, I found myself back in the car and rolling across I-90 to attend the Saturday preseason contest between the Steelers and Dolphins. I met with two small, violent storms along the seven-hour journey, but I had no idea what Mother Nature had in store for that evening. A torrential downpour and one of the best lightning shows I've ever seen delayed the start of the game by nearly an hour.
Despite the heavy rain, the field did not appear to be overly problematic and footing appeared steady. However, you would never be able to tell it by the final statistics and the inability of players to maintain possession of the ball. In all, there were nine fumbles lost and two interceptions thrown in this one. The offenses combined to convert only 7-of-29 third-downs. But, that isn't to say that the game didn't have its moments.
Hines Ward saw his first game action in front of the enthusiastic home crowd after just three days of practice. Coach Bill Cowher put him in for one series, and he received the loudest cheer ever heard for a three-yard catch that didn't result in a touchdown. When asked about the cheers from the crowd and getting back on the field, Ward smiled wide. "It's great. The fans are the reason why I play the game. Those guys really appreciate the way I play the game. There's no other place I'd rather be."
Ward went on to comment about the plan of attack for this week's practice sessions. "We need to find a rhythm and work on the fundamentals. We need to work on our third-down calls and timing. All this next week, we'll work to get on the same page with Ben." Reports this week have Roethlisberger and Ward putting in extra time to get their timing down with a longer stint expected in Friday's preseason contest.
Roethlisberger struggled a bit on this night, throwing high to a wide-open Cedrick Wilson in the end zone. On another toss, his attempt to put touch on a pass forced it to sail over Jerame Tuman's head and into the arms of defender Reggie Howard. Roethlisberger finished 6-for-11 for 51 yards. One positive play for Roethlisberger had him pulling the ball down to avoid a sack. He kept his feet moving and checked down to an open Willie Parker out of the backfield for a 20-yard gain.
Jerome Bettis carried the ball twice for 11 yards before taking his place on the bench, perhaps earlier than originally planned due to the weather. When asked about his short work in preseason games and whether he's getting enough work, Bettis dismissed the need for extensive playing time. "In the preseason, I don't worry about carries – I'm just getting ready for the game."
So, is he ready? Bettis smiled and laughed "I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm ready to rock."
In his post-game comments, Bettis was asked about the impressive play of speedy reserve tailback Willie Parker. "It's a nice shift. I never had that speed. You got the big slug (pointing to himself), a slow guy pounding away and working my way around. With Willie, he can run inside the tackles with authority. He's not just a speed guy."
The short night for The Bus allowed Parker the opportunity to shine. He ripped off a 37-yard run around the end that resulted in a missed 28-yard field goal attempt by Jeff Reed. As Bettis alluded to, Parker also has the ability to run inside, as evidenced by a 14-yard run during which he applied a stiff arm to the would-be tackler. "If my number is called, I gotta be ready. Call No. 39, and I'm ready. I liked the 14-yarder; they know I can run free. I want to show I'm strong and prove em wrong. That's why I like running inside."
With Duce Staley possibly being held out of the first and second regular season games, Parker is battling Verron Haynes for the back-up role to Jerome Bettis. Haynes scored from one yard out on the sixth play of a 37-yard drive following one of the many Dolphins turnovers.
Charlie Batch, continuing the competition with Tommy Maddox (who did not play) for the No. 2 spot behind Ben Roethlisberger, connected with Nate Washington on a 16-yard catch and run that set up Haynes' plunge from the one. Batch finished the game 6-for-11 for 55 yards. He was sacked twice. He offered this assessment of his play, "I felt that I did ok. There were two possessions that I had scoring drives on, so that's one better than last week. But you want to go out there and you want to score on every possession - that's the goal."
Walter Young, who is trying to make his way into the crowded receiving corps, finished the game with three catches for 19 yards. Twelve Pittsburgh receivers recorded one reception.
Aside from the return of Ward and breakout game for Parker, the Pittsburgh defense ruled the day, terrorizing quarterbacks A.J. Feeley and Gus Frerotte. The Steelers got on the board early when James Farrior forced a Gus Frerotte fumble that James Harrison returned 60 yards for a score. The Dolphins had opportunities downfield with large cushions afforded by the Steelers defensive backs, but Feeley and Frerotte failed to find the mark.
They were not helped by tight end Randy McMichael, who dropped several balls and accounted for one of the turnovers. He caught two passes for eight yards.
David Boston hauled in five catches for 34 yards to lead the Dolphins in his comeback bid. Wes Welker split time between the return game and the receiving corp. He made a nice catch on a deep route against Tyrone Carter that gained 42 yards. No. 1 receiver Chris Chambers caught one ball for nine yards.
The Dolphins welcomed Ronnie Brown into the fold earlier in the week, but he did not participate in this contest. Ricky Williams got the start, and managed a meager nine yards on five carries (including an eight-yard run). There was little push by the offensive line against the Steelers front.
Nick Saban and the coaching staff used this game to try and find separation in the battle for the QB job. Neither Feeley (16-for-20 for 95 yards) nor Frerotte (7-for-18 for 87 yards) made a strong case, fueling speculation that former Browns QB Tim Couch might be brought in for a tryout.
The Miami defense held the Steelers to 275 net yards, but Pittsburgh controlled the time of possession (34 minutes and 21 seconds). They forced two fumbles, an interception and registered two sacks.
Jason Taylor isn't ready to hit the panic button just yet, but offered a frank assessment of the game. "We got out-played, out-hustled and out-hit. We didn't make enough plays and we turned the ball over too much."
One reporter asked Taylor whether the crowd's enthusiastic response to return of Hines Ward, the weather delay or other factors took some of the Dolphins players off of their games. "You need to match teams hit for hit. You can't flop and not make plays in this league."
It was just the third step in what figures to be a long season for Nick Saban in Miami, and clearly the team needs to find some playmakers on offense. The defense will be solid initially, but quick turnovers will have them burnt by the middle of the year. They'll next face Tampa Bay on Saturday with Ronnie Brown in tow. We'll see if that sparks some movement on offense.
As for the Steelers, they're still looking for the first-stringers to gel. An extra week of work with Hines Ward back in the picture should do the trick. They'll be back on the field on Friday against the Redskins.